WASHINGTON — Between Britain and the United States, Paul Weller has forged two different careers. There, he's one of the essential figures of the last 40 years of popular music, a chart-topping, arena-filling superstar rightly revered as the leader of mod-punks the Jam and smooth operators the Style Council, as a key inspiration to the Britpop movement of the 1990s, and for a solo career that has included some of his strongest work.
Here, he's much more of a cult figure – but it's a devoted cult. So while he joked about his relative obscurity in the United States during his appearance Tuesday night at the 9:30 Club – thanking the three and a half people who bought his last album, commiserating with audience members who didn't know the songs – the reality is the hall was filled with fans who sang along to most every word. And not just to "Town Called Malice" and "That's Entertainment," the closest the Jam came to hits here, but to "Friday Street," "From the Floorboards Up" and others that never charted stateside.
Weller bounced out to "Peacock Suit," played as a malevolent thumper. Silver-haired and wiry, he bears a passing resemblance to Iggy Pop, grown craggy in the way of Ron Wood or Rod Stewart. And here's what's good about his comparitively low profile in the United States, where he is making a six-stop tour confined to the major East Coast cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington: It allows fans to see him in a club setting, which has to be the best way to see this kind of music.
The opening song set the tone for the set: The tight seven-piece band pounded out a throbbing beat; with longtime collaborator Steve Craddock often twinning Weller's guitar, the sound was often harder and louder than in the recorded versions. The crowd responded, and Weller seemed to feed off of their energy.
A noisy "Porcelain Gods," with a fine, jagged guitar solo by Weller, gave way to a suitably airy "Above the Clouds." Weller introduced "That's Entertainment," one of the all-time greatest tracks by anyone, anywhere, as an "old English folk song," then followed with a satisfying rip through the "Taxman" rewrite "Start!"
Unlike most of his peers from punk's Class of '77, Weller has never taken a break from making music, or from exploring new directions. The quality of his writing, meanwhile, has remained remarkably consistent. So while he played a few Jam songs, and a trebly, guitar-based version of the Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods," the set was based largely on his most recent several albums, to good effect.
"Kling I Klang," from last year's "Sonik Kicks," was a crashing, heavy ska that in the band's live rendering recalled the Clash's "Know Your Rights." "Fast Car/Slow Traffic," from 2010's "Wake Up The Nation," sounded like early Jam. "Sea Spray," from 2008's 22 Dreams, was an acoustic march.
Later came a roaring read of "Town Called Malice," another all-timer. He took over an electric piano for the gospelly 1970s R&B of "Broken Stones."
Weller concluded the main set with "The Changingman," something of a manifesto for an experienced artist who continues to follow music down new avenues.
Wake Up the Nation
From the Floorboards Up
Fast Car/Slow Traffic
My Ever Changing Moods
Kling I Klang
Above the Clouds
That Dangerous Age
Town Called Malice