This is a very special day for the city of Bristol, yet it turns out to be far more than that. Despite the South West being the location for Glastonbury, other events in the region don’t tend to register on the same scale as the bigger UK festivals. The Downs Festival in Bristol however, has been improving and strengthening its line-up each year, and tonight they have managed to bring a bill that includes some highly rated new acts, a DJ set from Basement Jaxx, drum n bass hero Goldie, and techno legends Orbital. But if that wasn’t enough, for the main stage, they’ve also managed to book the coolest living British icon that there is. And unbelievably, he’s only second on the bill, the headliner being the man behind the biggest band of the last 30 years. This was bound to be monumental, yet even I had no idea just how astonishing this evening would turn out. It’s no exaggeration to describe it as historic, since every show played by these two particular musicians will one day be seen as part of music history, future generations wishing they could have been there to witness it and be part of it. Rather how I feel when I talk to people who were lucky enough to see David Bowie, or The Beatles even. Sometimes we forget that these people aren’t going to be around forever, and we forget that we are lucky enough to be alive at the same time as them. Everything is history.
Which is why it makes my very first time watching Paul Weller even more special. Make no mistake about it, this man is a legend in every sense of the word. I would’ve happily shelled out £55 to see him play alone, which is just as well seeing as I wasn’t able to get to Bristol until the late afternoon. Annoyingly but inevitably, they put Orbital on at the same time as tonight’s main stage headliner, who I would never give up the chance to see. Never mind, the techno duo are back in Bristol this December. Tonight, I just need to get a good place near the front of the stage to see not one, but two of my heroes in action. Somehow, I’ve never had the chance to see Weller, despite being a fan for about 23 years. Living in Wiltshire for the first 32 years of my life, not being able to drive, and not having much money meant that I could never really get to gigs outside of the region. If anyone as big as Weller would play anywhere near me, the tickets would sell out before I could find the money or means to get there. Thankfully things changed and coincided with the announcement that Weller and another very special artist would be playing at this festival about an hour’s drive from where I live. Everyone here from the South West is blessed to have Weller here tonight, especially if it’s their first time seeing him.
It’s odd for someone with a new album out in less than two weeks to play nothing from it during an hour-long set. However, an hour is a minuscule amount of time when you have 41 years of music to choose from. With the contemplative, orchestral folk sound of the ‘True Meanings’ album signalling another new chapter for Weller, before that era begins, he chooses to close the previous one with a faultless festival set that showcases just a few of the timeless treasures that he has given to the music world over the last five glorious decades. Appearing on the stage to a loud cheer, the Modfather and his band kick straight into the grinding muscular groove of 2015’s ‘White Sky’, with two drum kits giving its rhythm an extra-solid base. The song and its performance are awe-inspiring, as is the fact that this icon who I have listened to so many times and seen pictured in so many places is here in front of my very own eyes, doing the thing that has put him into the history books. I say “the thing” when there are actually lots of things. Originally released when he was part of The Style Council, the infectious 80’s soul anthem ‘Shout To The Top’ is impossible not to move to, the guitars on the early 90’s ‘Sunflower’ are like a masterclass in effective riffage, while ‘Long Time’ from 2015’s eclectic ‘Saturns Pattern’ is a superb krautrock/RnB tune with a Velvet Underground vibe and a no-nonsense call-and-response verse.
This set is on a different level to anything I have been present at before. Usually, if I hear a set of classic songs covering all eras from the late 70s to the present day that were all relevant and vital songs of their times, then it must mean I’m watching a covers band. These are all songs written by the man standing in front of us. How many artists can you truly say that about? The beautiful breeze of ‘Hung Up’ reminds of his rootsy reinvention as a solo artist in the early 90s, while ‘Friday Street’ from a few years later shows us that his talent as a songwriter played a pivotal role during the Britpop era, and produced some of the era’s most incredible albums too. While many bands and artists from that time rely a lot on material from that period, for Weller it’s just one arrow in his bow. When he plays ‘Man In The Corner Shop’, you also remember that he was the brains behind the most successful band of the late 70’s punk scene, one who evolved and split at the peak of their powers, their status and reputation preserved for all-time. It’s not as if I didn’t know about The Jam, The Style Council, or any of Weller’s early or recent solo material before. It is all music that has been part of my life for most of my days. Yet hearing it all played together in one set is when it hits you: this is one of the all-time greats, a man whose role in music has been so great and varied, that he can legitimately be described as elemental. Like Bowie, when you look back at musical history, he is a figure who pops up everywhere, and who survived the test of time by staying relevant and embracing the possibilities of reinvention. And we are here on earth now, still able to play a part in his story while he is still here writing it. Is the state of music REALLY as bad as what some think it is when THIS is still happening? If you’re one of those people who needs a bit of perspective on that subject, I’d get yourselves to a Weller gig pronto.
This man has penned so many great songs that even if he played for hours, he still wouldn’t be able to fit them all in. Every setlist is different and never predictable. You never know what’s coming next. It could be the hard-punching rhythm and blues of ‘Peacock Suit’, an awesome moment from 1997’s ‘Heavy Soul’ which perfectly embodies the title of that brilliant album. It could be the joyous northern soul-pop of the 1984 hit ‘My Ever Changing Moods’, his surging retro-rock signature tune ‘The Changingman’, or the infectious punk-funk of The Jam’s ‘Start!’ Hearing these songs played by their author is a privilege to say the very least. It’s almost like a dream, in fact. And the renowned compositions just keep on coming: the stunning, bittersweet elegance that is created by ‘You Do Something To Me’ is impossible not to be captured by, while the stunning ‘Wild Wood’ is given more space and atmosphere when played at this slightly steadier pace by Weller and his excellent band, who are all on top form tonight. It would almost be rude not to give a mention to the brilliance of guitarist Steve Cradock, still the perfect sideman after all these years as well as continuing to move and excite other audiences with Ocean Colour Scene.
It’s so impossible to criticise tonight’s set in any way, that I even forgive the inclusion of ‘Woo Se Mama’, the weakest track from his excellent 2017 LP ‘A Kind Revolution’ and yet the only one played tonight. What I used to consider a naff song with a naff title is played so well that it brings me a step closer to warming to it. Faultless performance is also in store when they bring the funk again, along with a generous helping of rock riffing for a fantastic, almost celebratory ‘Into Tomorrow’, with bassist Andy Lewis skillfully demonstrating his value, as do the rest of the group. Meanwhile, Weller reminds us that as well as being a legendary voice, and a true master of songwriting, he is also a great guitarist. He is so many other things too. Including the writer of the rousing ‘, That’s Entertainment’, a definitively British singalong so enjoyable that crowds are still singing it at the top of their voices 38 years after its release. “Anthemic” is not an exaggeration.
Such an incredible experience seems to go by in the blink of an eye. Around 16 songs packed into an hour, with no time to play so many other classics, let alone any new material. And ridiculously, this total God of a figure isn’t even the main act. In context, it doesn’t seem so ridiculous when the headliner is Noel Gallagher. Admittedly, Noel probably wouldn’t have had such a successful career if it wasn’t for the influence of Weller’s music, but tonight that doesn’t seem like the point. It’s always good when a festival bill features a brilliant penultimate act to get the crowd warmed up for the main event. But Noel’s “warm-up act” happened to be a massive icon. The crowd aren’t just warmed up. They are absolutely buzzing. It’s almost too much excitement to take, especially for someone like myself, having just watched one of my heroes live for the first time and realised that he is even more legendary and important than I thought. And rather than taking time to recover from such an overwhelming experience, less than an hour later I am about to see a man whose songs soundtracked my youth, and whose band absolutely ruled the era in which I grew up in.
The last time I was able to see Noel Gallagher was 18 years and four days ago, when Oasis headlined the Leeds Festival back in August 2000. To say that a lot has changed since then would be an understatement. The year 2000 was a bit of a funny time for Oasis, and certainly a transitional period. Following their massive success, the hype and disappointment of Be Here Now, the death of Britpop, the departures of Bonehead and Guigsy, and recording their fourth album with an incomplete band, what Oasis needed was an album to put them back at the very top. People pinned their hopes on ‘Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants’ being a big return to form, leading to an even bigger disappointment when they learned that it wasn’t. The group were as brilliant as they ever had been at Leeds that year, and the boisterous crowd didn’t seem to mind that the previous two albums weren’t as good as the first two. It was also the last date on a tour that saw the beginning of Oasis mark 2, Andy Bell and Gem Archer having been recruited to tour the album, make the band complete again, and to bring in some different songwriters. It was meant to revitalise the group, but instead, the second half of the Oasis story had some very mixed results.
Despite Noel’s usual enthusiasm in the press for his songs, there was this nagging feeling that the biggest songwriter of the era was struggling. Under constant pressure to match ‘(What’s The Story?) Morning Glory’, and feeling the weight of the disproportionate criticism given to his previous two albums, the man who they called The Chief was suddenly being held back by writer’s block and a lack of confidence.
Or was it something else holding him back? Frustrated by his older brother’s reputation as “the talented one”, Liam Gallagher had a go at writing his own songs for Oasis, resulting in a lot of ridicule when the dire ‘Little James’ was included on SOTSOG. The frontman’s voice was always immense on the recordings, but in the 2000s he could often ruin live performances with too much emphasis on aggression, arrogance and attitude. In the studio, Liam wouldn’t be afraid of adding a touch of laddish vulnerability to his vocals when certain tracks required it. But such tenderness would go straight out the window as soon as he stood in front of a massive audience. At times, the look on Noel’s face as his often-drunken brother failed to hit the high notes said it all. It’s undeniable that Liam added something special to Oasis, but at times he could completely sabotage any hint of delicacy in the songs.
In hindsight, as soon as the second phase of Oasis moved into action, the band began to drift apart. Their remaining three albums would be 50% tracks written by Noel, with the remainder being penned by Liam, Andy and Gem. As a result, the records sounded uneven and at times somewhat compromised. Although these albums improved on the sales of that fourth record, Oasis would never reach the dizzy heights of the mid-90s again.
Following that explosive backstage fight in Paris that divided the brothers for good in 2009, fans split themselves into Team Noel and Team Liam. The former reckoned that the band was essentially a vehicle for Noel’s songwriting. Meanwhile, Liam’s disciples argued that Oasis was all about that voice. Of course, if you were a bit more sensible, you’d probably agree that what made Oasis special was the combination of Noel’s songs and Liam’s vocals. I used to think that there was some sort of magic at work with those two, and the fact they were brothers seemed like fate. Maybe Noel was born to write songs especially for his future brother to sing, and Liam was put on this earth to sing his older sibling’s songs. You couldn’t imagine ‘Headshrinker’ being sung by Noel, and you wouldn’t think that Liam could write a classic as stunning as ‘Champagne Supernova’. For a while, they DID need each other. But only to write the first chapter of the story.
Just because it was meant to be doesn’t mean it was meant to be forever. If Liam singing Noel’s songs was what made Oasis, then technically we weren’t getting much of it during the later days. On those last three albums, Noel would only write half the songs, most of which his younger brother would refuse to sing, or perhaps wasn’t suited to. So the elder Gallagher would have to voice many of them himself anyway. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that the band eventually split into Noel and Beady Eye, since it had been going that way for a while.
Noel needed no time to adapt to being a solo artist since he had been singing his own songs for years. You could argue that Liam wasn’t missed on The Masterplan, Half The World Away, Don’t Look Back In Anger, Little By Little and many other songs. Noel’s vocals offered a softer contrast to his brother’s and were better suited to acoustic numbers and the darker, more emotional material that he was beginning to write towards the end of the band. Even during their existence, there were many who said that Noel was the true talent, that he would be better on his own, and that they didn’t like Oasis because of Liam.
These are all things to put into perspective. I wish I didn’t even have to mention Oasis, but the story is essential to understanding the context of this incredible show tonight: how the past has shaped the present, how things have changed massively, how other things have remained, and why Oasis should NEVER reform.
Having Weller playing before Noel and his High Flying Birds hasn’t just had a great impact on the crowd, but it’s also warmed up Gallagher and his band. It’s also a genius move to remind people that although Weller was once the songwriter in one of the greatest bands of all-time, he moved on to different things and became even more of a legend. If he had reformed The Jam, we wouldn’t have had all those astonishing solo tracks.
If there were any criticisms of the first two Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds albums, it would be that they didn’t stray that far from the Oasis formula. That all changed with last year’s incredible ‘Who Built The Moon’, the album that saw The Chief finally stepping out of his comfort zone. Its mighty opening track ‘Fort Knox’ certainly makes for a fine set starter as Noel and his band walk on to the stage, the chunky funk beats and booming bass building up the already highly charged excitement. The largely instrumental curtain raiser must be a surprise to anyone here who hasn’t listened to any of Gallagher’s solo work. Influenced partly by Kanye West’s ‘The Power’, with its amped-up loops and Eastern vibes, this is no simple exercise in basic indie rock. This isn’t to say that Noel has gone completely all-out experimental. Writing catchy melodies and big hooks is what he does incredibly well, but this time there’s a new approach in terms of sonic boundaries. Those who love slagging him off for not taking risks will now have to desperately find a new excuse to have a dig.
For someone who hasn’t been able to see Noel in nearly two decades, it’s like welcoming back a very familiar old friend who has returned to the fold tooled up with a lot more weaponry. He launches into the awesome glam romp of ‘Holy Mountain’, one of his most irresistible and infectious songs yet. As Bowie/Roxy Music vibes meet with the French punk spirit of Plastic Bertrand, the lively tin whistle hook digs itself deep into people’s minds as the jubilant chorus does everything you’d want from a Gallagher singalong. Noel may be moving on from indie guitar music, but accessible tunes are what he excels at. That’s pretty evident from the fact that only two songs in, and I am already having just as much fun as I did when I was part of that Oasis crowd in August 2000.
The sensational northern gospel of ‘Keep On Reaching’ does exactly as the title states, mixing Motown with Manchester and occasionally bringing to mind Spiritualized doing a more urgent relative of ‘Loose Fit’ by the Happy Mondays. Again, this clearly isn’t the type of thing that they used to feature on those Shine compilation albums. This is soul music with a definite swagger. The stunning ‘It’s A Beautiful World’ exudes a colourful, cosmic sense of wonder as kinetic breakbeats compliment winding guitar lines and another magnificent chorus. If any proof was needed that it really IS “a beautiful world when we dance in the light”, then being here tonight would cast away any doubt. Only less than a couple of years ago, I wasn’t sure whether Noel could experiment with new sounds without compromising the quality of his songwriting. Instead, he’s making it sound brilliantly effortless.
Another thing that seems effortless is the ability to slot these more ambitious moments next to tracks from the first two High Flying Birds albums and even some old Oasis numbers. We get steady paced drama and another fist-in-the-air singalong with the strident ‘In The Heat Of The Moment’, while the wonderful ‘If I Had A Gun’ provides a masterclass in powerful, heartfelt guitar anthems. And yes, some people STILL think it’s ‘Wonderwall’ when they hear that familiar sounding intro. It’s not a lie when I say that it’s an equally great song. Also taken from the debut solo album is the bouncy Kinks-like ‘Dream On’, which should be more than enough to dispel the myth that Noel “lost it”. It’s quite telling that although the previously mentioned song was never a chart hit, it gets people singing just as loud as they do on the 2002 Oasis classic ‘Little By Little’, which sounds more rousing tonight than it ever has. It’s a smart move to not focus too much on nostalgia, yet it would seem ridiculous if the man behind the biggest anthems of the 90s didn’t allow himself to play any of them. It’s a past that’s impossible to forget or simply just ignore. Nowadays, The Chief has managed to strike the perfect balance. It feels more like looking at history through the eyes of the present rather than simply attempting to recreate it. I don’t necessarily think of 2002 when I hear ‘Little By Little’, but of everything that has happened since, and how every event has led me to where I am now. I think about how Noel’s music helped, inspired, guided and picked me up throughout those years. But most importantly, I think about the fact that after 24 years, I am still listening.
When Noel quit Oasis and brought the band to an end, I cried tears of sadness that night as an important era officially died. Tonight, as the glorious ‘Whatever’ is aired, they are tears of absolute, unbridled joy. I’m no longer wishing it was the mid 90’s again because my life is incredible in 2018 and these songs are still here to soundtrack the good times and the things that I never had back then. They are also here like a faithful old friend whenever I need a lift. After hearing the song that brought Noel and Oasis into my life, it would’ve been sad if it was immediately followed by a weak track from the present day. Nostalgia would win, the doubters would be proved right, and the music world of the present day would still seem like a spiralling comedown from the 90s. Luckily, where Noel Gallagher is concerned, there are no weak new songs. Maybe it hits you when an eternal classic like ‘Whatever’ is followed by the recent ‘If Love Is The Law’, and you hear no drop in quality. The sweet 60’s pop melodies and its coupling of subtle verses with a surging chorus would certainly take a cold heart to dismiss. And as unimaginable as it was during the 90s, Noel is making music that people are DANCING to as opposed to leaping up and down shouting and throwing their beer in the air. Those who consider that a bad thing should open their minds. I for one can’t help but get a groove on during the sublime New Order/Blondie-flavoured ‘She Taught Me How To Fly’, where guitars and disco rhythms move together brilliantly. There aren’t many 24-year-old B sides that can get a whole field singing at top volume in 2018, but the magnificent ‘Half The World Away’ does the job with ease, it’s yearning, laid-back beauty enhanced with the warmth of a fine brass section.
And yet this still doesn’t feel like a nostalgia-fest, this is a man playing songs that led him to where he is today. Songs that led many of us to where we are today. When the audience is given an immortal musical landmark like ‘Wonderwall’, it’s not necessarily just the mid-90s that come to mind. Such a song has become so deeply embedded into popular culture that it is timeless. It is a thing of now just as much as it is a thing of the 90s. Some of the people here weren’t even born when Oasis were busy dominating the music world, and yet the song is part of their lives, part of them. That’s apparent from the reaction it gets tonight, and guess what else? Nobody seems to be missing a certain former Beady Eye frontman.
Noel’s younger brother probably wouldn’t have suited the majority of these tracks anyway. His vocals may have an edge, attitude and clarity, but not the soulful touch required for the electrifying ‘AKA What A Life’, where solid songwriting structure, house piano, psychedelia and dancefloor euphoria are mixed to awesome effect. Even further removed from the Britpop days, ‘The Right Stuff’ was never a huge favourite of mine when it featured on 2015’s ‘Chasing Yesterday’. Perhaps it sounded out of place there. Tonight in its live incarnation, it sounds immense. During the Be Here Nowadays, could you ever have imagined Noel creating brilliant psychedelic soul music? But there are some things that will never change, and one of them is that people will never get fed up of singing ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ at the top of their lungs. All-time classics like these are so big and such an important part of our culture, that wherever they are played feels like it’s the centre of the world at that moment.
Usually, a mass singalong like that would’ve been the climax of the evening. Not tonight. “Shall we get Weller out?” Well, we’re not going to say no, are we?
There can’t be anyone cooler on earth than Weller as he strides onto the stage complete with black leather jacket and guitar. The place goes mad as they break into a jubilant ‘Town Called Malice’, Weller sounding totally triumphant while Noel and his band look like they’re having the time of their lives. I would be too if I was playing legendary songs to an adoring crowd, and able to be joined onstage by one of music’s all-time greatest icons. It’s one of those moments that everyone here will be telling the grandkids about in years to come. An overwhelming “I was there” experience, that couldn’t have been better. The Modfather remains on stage as the night ends with a celebratory, emotional ‘All You Need Is Love’, another moment from the past that has not only stood the test of time but also brings a timeless message to the present day and for many generations to come.
Essentially tonight reminds us to treasure the great things from the past, to stay open-minded to change, to enjoy and savour the present day, and to believe in the future. So before you ask Noel Gallagher for the millionth time if he’s going to reform Oasis, ask yourself this: why would he want to?
A magical, glorious night. May there be many more for both Weller and Noel. 10/10