TVD Live: Paul Weller
at the 9:30 Club, 6/9

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | Paul Weller kicked off his North American tour with a little bit of jet-caused dry throat. At least that’s how he explained downing a liter or so of bottled water during his show at the 9:30 Club Tuesday.

The elegant, longtime rocker with a smooth, keening voice couldn’t quite stretch to the edges of his songs until halfway through a show meant to showcase his new album Saturn’s Patterns.

Early on, one of the new tunes, “I’m Where I Should Be” indicated his comfort for doing just what he’s doing presently: finding a sweet spot between the bracing rock that began his career with the Jam and the cooler, R&B driven crooning that marked The Style Council—without playing songs from either group.

Never mind that the foundation of his career was built on his solid work with both those long ago bands, Weller at 57 is one of those who chooses to ignore all that to concentrate on the now—or at least the material that’s been released on 12 solo albums since 1992. In D.C. he chose to go back just 10 years to his third solo album Stanley Road with “Porcelain Gods” and “The Changingman” in one of the encores.

What made the night work is that so much of the work from Saturn’s Patterns is so strong, with convincing, crunching rock work as in the opening “White Sky,” to the terrific laid back groove of “These City Streets” which he saved until the encore. Weller carries the sophistication and flair he had as a younger man into his AARP years; with his trim frame, British countenance, and penchant for shaking things up, he recalls the actor Peter O’Toole; his hair gone grey, he strikes the silver fox look of a mustache-less Sam Elliott.

Though he’s quite accomplished on guitar, a live show proves he’s not one of those guys who can sing and play comfortably at the same time. As such, he clipped some of his vocal phrases because he needed to look down at the guitar and played his only fully developed solos when he stepped away from the microphone.

He’s pretty effective on harmonica, but used it only once, on “Friday Street,” another show highlight.

He moved a few times to a keyboard on stage left for ballads that never got too slow. Mostly he was aided by a solid five piece that included a drummer plus a percussionist (with his own full drum set). Guitarist Steve Cradock was having a birthday but still didn’t get that much of a spotlight.

Weller never became the singular figure in rock here that he did in the UK, where his solo career never flagged and he’s considered a national treasure. That’s due in part to his diligent attention to new songs that puts him apart from, say, his onetime idols The Who, a band happy to troll the old hits for the big bucks.

But there’s some happy medium between concentrating only on the oldies, as the Stones and McCartney now do, filling stadiums as a result, and completely ignoring the classics that got you your audience in the first place. Even stalwarts like David Byrne, Bob Dylan, or Joe Strummer before he died have been accommodating enough to throw some early career stuff in there to keep fans happy.

Weller’s only concession to all of this came in a third encore (meaning people really had to beg for it), in which he played, finally, the Jam’s “A Town Called Malice.” It was the first time I heard him do it since the Jam played the Palladium in New York shortly before they broke up (in a 1982 show with the Gun Club). Accordingly, the bass-heavy, Motown inspired anthem fired up all the nostalgic receptors. Still, Weller played it as if with a bad taste in his mouth, refusing even to sing the chorus, leaving it to his long time (and long suffering) fans to do so. Which they happily did.

Dedicated old fans of the headliner are not the greatest audience for new voices, and so the crowd was generally inattentive to the opener, Hannah Cohen, a San Francisco-born former model from New York turned breathy songstress. With a gauzy black evening dress and hair hanging in her eye, she wailed as if packing a Lana Del Reygun.

But is it seduction or sonnambulance? Cohen once accompanied herself by tentative electric guitar but her new album. Pleasure Boy uses synths and drums to a solid effect on stage that found her harmonizing with herself (on an echo box) and scatting at many songs’ end. As cool and effective as this often was, she’s got to try a bit more in the performance aspect. As it was, she could scarcely look up at the audience to make eye contact.

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