The stakes went up as soon as the lights went down. "What an introduction," Paul Weller said with a hint of worry after Billy Mitchell – a fixture at New York's Apollo Theater since 1965, as an assistant to the stars, talent booker and all-around host – enthusiastically welcomed the English singer to that hallowed stage on July 25th. "We'd better be good after that."
Weller, opening a typically brief U.S. tour (it ends July 31st in Philadelphia), was definitely quick about his business, performing 20 songs in 75 minutes with a five-piece band and a Seventies-British-blues crunch coating the vintage-R&B reverberations that still distinguish Weller's songwriting. The title track from Weller's 2010 album, Wake Up the Nation (Yep Roc), sounded like high-speed Free with a Motown dance beat. So did the final encore, "Town Called Malice," one of a welcome handful of songs Weller pulled from his life in the Jam and, with its bass line clearly descended from the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love," a special, appropriate pleasure in this room.
Weller – a remarkable-looking 55, with silver-mod hair –packed the set list with an emphasis on his strong recent work, including last year's Sonik Kicks and 2002's Illumination (both Yep Roc). He couldn't help noting his eternal cult status on this side of the Atlantic. "This is from an album that came out last year, that probably few of you heard," Weller said, with a small chip from his shoulder rattling in his voice, before playing the brisk and brash "Kling I Klang" from Sonik Kicks. "That Dangerous Age," also from the record, suggested the Beatles' "Day Tripper" as rearranged by the Seventies Rolling Stones: good evidence of how Weller keeps finding new ways to press his deep-seated inspirations forward.
One album he returned to with unexpected frequency was 1997's Heavy Soul, an album that did, unfairly, disappear on arrival here. It is an important if low-key pivot in Weller's solo catalog, binding his gifts and history with the R&B ideals and progressive ambitions of Seventies British bands such as Traffic and Free. At the Apollo, Weller played "Peacock Suit," "Up in Suze's Room" and "Friday Street" from that record – a nice bounty that fit and, with hindsight, predicted his fine, current run of dynamic introspection.
There were gifts to the faithful too: Weller's 1984 Style Council hit "My Ever Changing Moods," rendered with a rapid fury that had more octane than cappuccino, and some back-to-back Jam. "That's Entertainment" was done as a folk-rock march with Weller robustly strumming an acoustic guitar; there was no reason to change a thread on the Beatles-"Taxman" pastiche "Start!" And in a nod to his surroundings, Weller opened his encore with a rough, reverent cover of "Wishing on a Star," a bittersweet 1978 groove by the R&B group Rose Royce. By then, Weller had earned that welcome from Billy Mitchell. This was pure admiration and gratitude.