A Soulful Valentine to Vagaries of Love

February 17, 2003



Paul Weller was one day off, but his performance at the Vic Theatre on Saturday night was the perfect Valentine’s Day concert—at least for rock fans who are involved in long-term relationships but are unwilling to abandon their romantic ideals.

“It’s written in the wind that we’re two/Carved out in the sand that we’re real,” Weller sang over a sensual but hard-hitting groove in “It’s Written in the Stars,” a new song that was one of the highlights of a set that was full of them.

At age 44, the still wonderfully boyish leader of mod revivalist legends the Jam and neosoul pioneers the Style Council writes some of the most mature and subtly nuanced love songs found anywhere in rock. And as usual, he delivered them with a gusto that took the recorded versions on his solo albums to new heights onstage.

Fronting an absurdly tight and versatile five-piece band (including two key members of the English pop group Ocean Colour Scene), Weller gave the packed crowd an ultra high-energy, 26-song tour through his impressive catalog, emphasizing his solo years (including the new album “Illumination”) but also reaching back for a surprising sampling of songs by the Style Council and the Jam.

Embittered by the Jam’s turbulent split, the guitarist and vocalist has been criticized for years for avoiding the songs that first made him famous. But as Weller moved from acoustic to electric guitars and finally to the grand piano, fans at the Vic were treated to rollicking versions of “In the Crowd” and “That’s Entertainment.”

The only time all night that the cheers were louder was when the songwriter sat behind the electric organ for a mid-set cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” emphasizing the key and oh-so-timely line, “War is not the answer.”

While these blasts from the past were certainly enjoyable, the show was far from a nostalgia fest. Weller is one of those rare rock ’n’ rollers who doesn’t fear growing old (even if he is still wed to the striped polo shirts and shag haircut of his youth), and his ever-deepening understanding of the joys and challenges of struggling to maintain a youthful passion in one’s love life was well-served by contrasting the sentiments of his early tunes to those of the newer numbers.

It has been a long journey indeed from his musing of “two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude” in “That’s Entertainment” to his observation that “We’re hopelessly informed that we’re meant [to be]” in “It’s Written in the Stars.”

But it has also been a most rewarding trip, thanks to a deep and soulful voice that has only grown more resonant with the passing of time, and an enduring musical vision that has always mixed equal parts British Invasion pop (especially the transcendent jangle and psychedelic drone of mid-’60s Beatles and Who) with the earthy grit of vintage American soul and R&B (notably in the form of those fat and nasty grooves, which were ably driven by bassist Damon Minchella and drummer Steve White, whom Weller thanked with individual solo showcases).

Weller has always been an acquired taste in America, appealing primarily to a small but hugely devoted audience of Anglophiles. Relegated to the ranks of the indies for his new release, his current tour has been plagued by lackluster ticket sales that caused the cancellation of several shows.

But in Chicago, at least, his legacy continues to loom large, and he rewarded the devoted with a Valentine that galvanized them throughout the concert’s two-hour length, and maybe even sent them home with a better understanding of the joys and mysteries of love.