"Tonight is maybe the best night of my life," Harry Styles confessed Friday, facing an excited crowd of fans and friends gathered to hear the songs of his just-released solo debut, Harry Styles. The intimate club performance unfolded at the Troubadour, the celebrated West Hollywood room where some of his folk-rock heroes from the Seventies performed early career-defining gigs.
The erstwhile One Direction singer walked out as casually as anyone can in golden glitter pants. He picked up an electric guitar to begin "Ever Since New York," a ballad warm and jangly, to an audience of raised cell phones. He winced dramatically to the lyrics of bitter love ("Almost over / Had enough from you"), ending with a fan sing-along to the repeated closing line: "Oh, tell me something I don't already know."
The album wasn't the obvious move for the pop idol, but is now fully expected to debut at Number One on the Billboard 200 album chart. The concert at the 500-capacity Troubadour was a night to celebrate (and a benefit for homeless teens), while a crowd of mostly female fans not lucky enough to score a ticket stood outside waiting behind a barricade, maybe hoping for a glimpse of Styles, guest James Corden or anyone else.
At 23, Styles has launched a solo career to genuine acclaim, drawing less on the immediate pop of his multi-platinum boy band than lessons learned from the rock and pop past. His new songs show the direct influence of Bowie, Elton John, the Stones, Lennon & McCartney, and many others. The results that aren’t revolutionary in 2017 but are emotionally resonant, and suggest a healthy foundation of taste and ambition.
At the Troubadour, the percussive piano on "Woman" began like Elton's "Bennie and the Jets." The folky glimmer of his "Meet Me in the Hallway" shimmered like Bowie's "Space Oddity." His "Only Angel" snarled with Stonesy guitars and fittingly brutal beats and cowbell from drummer Sarah Jones.
By the time Stevie Nicks stepped out as his surprise guest for a trio of duets, Styles had traveled comfortably through a variety of styles. "You look pretty wonderful," Styles said almost shyly as Nicks arrived at the mic. She replied, "So do you."
Nicks wore black and sang harmony on Styles' "Two Ghosts," a dreamy tune that could be Beck in sad singer-songwriter mode. Nicks looked over at her singing partner and blended her voice with his: "We're just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me / Trying to remember how it feels to have a heart beat."
They followed with Fleetwood Mac's classic "Landslide," trading lyrics and admiring glances. Young women in the crowd shouted along to Nicks, but turned silent when Styles delivered his lines, which were his most gentle and reverent of the night. When Nicks paused to share some history about "Landslide," Styles stepped back to sit and listen like the rest of the room, then joined her on one more song, "Leather and Lace."
For much of the 80-minute set, Styles' demeanor was as casual as if he were hosting a cocktail party in his living room, at ease with fans shouting ecstatically to his every syllable. With him were not a band of session players but a group of young musicians and peers, including guitarist Mitch Rowland, who was still working at a pizza shop when recruited by Styles as a player and co-writer on the album.
Together, they charged into "Kiwi," a grinding rocker in the tradition of the Strokes or Jet, sending Styles bouncing around the stage, leaning into the front rows, punching the air.
"Unfortunately I only have one album, so we've only got one song left," he said with a laugh near the end of the night. "We've quite literally run out of material."
He then turned to the band and suggested performing "Kiwi" once more, as many in the crowd erupted. The band dove back into the rocker, and it was just as convincing, the song and energy clearly a sweet spot for Styles. When it was done, he asked, "Do it again?"
Instead, Styles closed with the emotionally lush "Sign of the Times," already a career-defining song for the new solo artist. It wasn't a casual reading. His voice soared and shifted gracefully between tenor and falsetto, retaining the epic song’s solemn gospel flavor (even without the album's accompanying choir).
Like "Kiwi," the tune tapped into something real in the singer, lifting him far beyond casual charmer and into passionate performer. Which might the greatest lesson of all from the musical heroes of the rock and pop past.