Paul Weller and Rock History: Apollo Landing
In Harlem the roots of the rock ‘n’ roll family tree are 100 years strong.
THE Apollo Theatre’s place in music history dates from 1914, when the building opened as a whites-only burlesque hall on 125th Street in New York City. Officially named The Apollo in 1934, the theatre began welcoming African American performers and audiences to its famous “Amateur Night”, which kick-started the careers of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. During the 1960s, the venue became a showcase for black American talent, with concerts performed by James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Today the Apollo is an essential stop on the pilgrimage of rock stars, its stage a place where Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart and others play in homage to their musical heroes.
So it is fitting that Paul Weller, a British songwriter and former band leader for The Jam and The Style Council, began his latest American tour at the Apollo on July 25th.
Dressed in two-tone wingtip shoes (a la Harlem legend Cab Calloway), Mr Weller fit five decades of rock’n’roll into a swift 24-song set. He took the stage with the bluesy 1993 single “Sunflower”, buoyed by a five-piece band featuring Steve Cradock, the guitarist from the Britpop 1990s band Ocean Colour Scene. Mr Weller then tackled material from his 11 solo albums, ably balancing the wiry guitar parts and defiant vocals of “7&3 is the Striker’s Name” with the go-go beats of “That Dangerous Age” and the pastoral acoustic jangle of “Sea Spray”. The mostly male audience cheered after hearing Mr Weller’s rebooted versions of The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment” and The Style Council’s “My Ever Changing Moods”.
There was very little banter—and no talk of nostalgia—yet Mr Weller acknowledged the Apollo’s history in song. While Smokey Robinson, an Apollo legend, spent the evening crooning to a crowd in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, Mr Weller channeled The Miracles with his own sublime R&B ballad, “Above the Clouds”. The Apollo’s young bar staff and ushers nodded in time to Mr Weller’s electric piano cover of “Wishing on a Star” (originally recorded by Rose Royce in 1978; variations have also been recorded by Jay Z, Beyoncé and Seal). For his finale, Mr Weller shook the Apollo’s rafters with his 1982 ode to working-class boyhood, “Town Called Malice”, The Jam’s only chart hit in America.
Mr Weller’s Apollo concert was introduced by Billy Mitchell, who has worked at the theatre since the 1960s and now directs tours there. “I have a whole new appreciation for his music,” Mr Mitchell said after the show. “Paul Weller’s part of the Apollo family now.”
“It’s a beautiful thing and long overdue,” Mr Mitchell says of the diversification of talent and audiences at the theatre. “Harlem is changing, but people still come to the Apollo for one thing and one thing only, and that’s to see a great show.”
This story was published by The Economist.
Photo: Kristi York Wooten
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