Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds & Paul Weller
When you mention the names Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, you immediately think of world class musical icons, legends and rock royalty, as well as two of the greatest and most esteemed singer-songwriters that Great Britain has ever produced - both of whom, have well and truly made their mark on history! Just take a glance at either superstar's songbook and you will see a long list of timeless tracks and perennial jukebox gems. Then, as individuals, there's another string to each of their bows and a major factor in their well-rounded, illustrious résumés and sparkling legacies. As famously, both men have been the masterminds, creative geniuses, visionaries and ambitious leaders, behind two of the most important, trendsetting, critically acclaimed, successful, decorated and influential bands in the history of popular music!
Big league groups who decades apart, made landmark, era-defining long players during their imperial phases, and thus, were key figures in - and at the forefront of - significant / pivotal musical movements. Paul with The Jam and the Mod Revival in the late '70s to early '80s. Noel with Oasis and the glory days of Britpop in the mid to late '90s. And it goes without saying, that although Oasis epitomised attitude and proudly / unashamedly lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, they also had a lot of heart and customarily chiselled life-affirming optimism into many of their celebratory songs. All of which, are furnished with both grit and glitter.
In short, they were nothing less than a once-in-a-generation cultural phenomenon! The likes of which - and whose impact / off the scale popularity - we're unlikely to ever see again in The Music Industry. Especially in the age of online digital platforms (streaming, playlists, downloads, YouTube etc.) and the manner in which some listeners, would rather plump for a quick fix approach to consuming new music, and regrettably, no longer visit record stores, collect physical formats or consider / embrace 'bands as a way of life.' Having said that however, there are exceptions to this rule and owing to their quality, both The Jam and Oasis do still ignite devotion and are widely cherished, idolised and hero-worshipped by generations old and new.
With working class backgrounds, shared interests and a mutual admiration. Weller actually gave his true-blue patronage and stamp of approval to Oasis, very early on in their career, and he and Gallagher have now been fast friends for over 25-years - frequently collaborating together live onstage or guesting on each other's albums. They're even nearby neighbours in London where they both live. Also of note, is that Paul has stuck to his guns and never reformed The Jam since they called it a day in 1982, despite countless lucrative offers to do so. By seeing the bigger picture and actively encouraging Gallagher to also mature with his solo endeavours / spirit of adventure; to stay open-minded, to chase his muse, to take risks, to fully utilise his eclectic musical tastes and to take listeners on this journey with him. Apparently, Weller has even jested that if Oasis do ever reunite, that he'll "never speak to Noel again!" Now a fully independent artist, Gallagher - who has declared that "as a fan of music he writes from that perspective," also describing himself as "a grafter and an ordinary guy with an extraordinary gift" - commented on this freedom: "I enjoy not working with people in record labels, it's nice to get away from that mob... I enjoy the lack of money that I make. I enjoy the lack of record sales. I also enjoy the lack of recognition and the lack of awards that I receive, because quite frankly, my mantelpiece was chock-a-block with the fucking things. It's nice to take a backseat."
Tonight then, it should come as no surprise that given their intertwined pasts, Paul is supporting his close pal, Noel (who with bulletproof self-belief, is also affectionately known the world over by his nickname, 'The Chief'). Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, a perfect pairing if ever there was one and when this must-see show was officially announced in February of this year, understandably, legions of devotees were on cloud nine and scrabbled to get their hands on tickets, which sold like hot cakes! For those who may be interested in learning more about the location of this concert, The Downs in Bristol is a picturesque setting for a one-day 30,000 capacity festival, which starts early on the Saturday afternoon and features two music stages with varied line-ups across The Downs Stage and The Avon Stage (today, the latter has acts including Orbital and Goldie). On site, there are also discussions / debates (such as the importance of The Big Issue and helping the homeless), comedians, merch stands, food and drink stalls, fairground rides and all manner of family activities etc. So, everything you've come to expect from the festival experience!
Now in its third year (with previous headliners including Massive Attack and Elbow), the concert promoter / event organisers have pulled out all the stops yet again - with many calling this "the best line-up yet" - and mercifully, the weather is also on our side with a lovely end of summer balm. With an electric atmosphere, Weller takes to the stage at 8pm and later apologies for not saying very much between songs, but this is because he only has an hour to perform for us this evening. Although with some local vernacular, he does comically describe being in Bristol as "Gert lush."
With his trademark Mod haircut and stylish / tailored clothes (Paul even now has his very own menswear collection / label, 'Real Stars Are Rare'), all eyes are on The Modfather, and the sprightly set list runs the gamut of his rich and storied career and numerous reinventions. From his early days with The Jam and The Style Council, right through to his prolific solo years and recent, contemporary purple patch - where lyrically, he unremittingly mixes the personal with the political, and musically, whenever pursuing bold / cutting-edge inventiveness has never been stymied by doubt. As in the past decade alone - although having nothing left to prove - he has been riding on the crest of a wave, recording some of his most consistent, experimental and commended work to date! Having also just turned 60 and looking svelte, Weller constantly dispalys just what a wonderful and inimitable singer, guitarist and pianist he is (even talking in recent interviews about how in the past few years alone, he has now "learnt how to sing properly" when expressing himself and sounds better-than-ever, before quipping that he's "had enough practice"). In his natural habitat, the ebullient crowd lap up all of the 16 tracks that he marches through with ease - alongside a tight backing band - and top-to-tail with tunes, some of the peaks include, Sunflower, My Ever Changing Moods, Broken Stones, That's Entertainment, Wild Wood, Into Tomorrow, You Do Something To Me, Start!, Peacock Suit, and closer, The Changingman.
Then, after having shown just what has led to his longevity - also heaping plenty of praise on Noel during his set. At 9.30pm, it's time for tonight's main event (which surprisingly, is the very first time that Gallagher has ever had top billing in Bristol on his own)! With excited, giddy and passionate superfans stood against the guard rails - many of whom are wearing Noel Gallagher or Oasis t-shirts - another nod to his heritage comes in the form of Manchester City F.C. flags (Noel's beloved football team), which are draped over the amps onstage. Coolly striding out with his High Flying Birds in tow, and hitting all the right notes with a combination of powerful musicianship and confident vocals throughout. The fighting fit headliners start with the first four tracks from Gallagher's latest, favourably-received, leftfield excavating and 'bursting bubbles of perception' third LP, Who Built The Moon? (which also marked a record-breaking 10th consecutive Number One Album for Noel - 7 with Oasis + 3 solo chart-toppers - and studio-wise, is the album that he had "the most fun making"). These include the opener and predominantly instrumental Fort Knox, the toe-tapping Holy Mountain, the funky ballast / Northern Soul of Keep On Reaching and the dreamily blissful / intergalactic It's A Beautiful World - the latter of which, I strongly believe is one of the most accomplished and special songs that Noel has ever penned. And, with a proven track record and not wanting to rest on his laurels, if beginning in this way was any kind of litmus test, then with full-bodied, crisp audio and dazzling light displays, so far, the experience has been truly magical!
Proving how great minds think alike and just as Weller did earlier, on one occasion, when acknowledging / conversing with the audience, Gallagher - who has admirably adapted into his role as a charismatic and engaging frontman, and can more than hold his own - also adopts a Bristolian accent and asks: "Alright my lovers?" This generates much laughter from The Downs gathering and whenever working the crowd, lots more amusing banter / wisecracking would ensue as the night progressed, typical of the renowned sense of humour, unapologetic sharp wit and candour, that Noel always doles out during his opinionated and unmissable interviews. Next up, we have a few additional solo tracks showcasing the rockier and more contemplative / confessional sides of Gallagher's music, with a blazing In The Heat Of The Moment, as well as incandescent interpretations of If I Had A Gun... and Dream On. Before a one-two punch of all-time Oasis classics, Little By Little, and the standalone single, Whatever, which sees everyone in the vast scenic grounds erupt in full voice, singing their hearts out.
Splitting in 2009, due to Noel's fractious relationship / sibling rivalry with his younger brother, Liam (now relaunched as a successful solo artist in his own right), both of whom are real characters - something which is in short supply in music nowadays. It would be somewhat of an understatement to propose that Oasis are sorely missed - whose inclusivity / openness was a huge part of their communal appeal - and so it's par for the course, that both songs elicit euphoric and mass singalongs, with people echoing Gallagher's every word! With regard to his songwriting process, music and melody come first, while lyrically, although Noel is a dreamer and sometimes downplays the importance of his words.
He has long written lyrics that veer from universal truths / everyman sentiments (which also have autobiographical flashes and an eagerness to escape), to much more impressionistic imagery made up of painterly brush strokes. But, melded with melodic rock 'n' roll, they obviously continue to resonate with and touch a great deal of souls, now that Oasis' body of work has 'lived' with an audience and established such a deep, emotional and unbreakable connection. With Noel's lyrics meaning lots of different things to lots of different people.
The Phil Spector 'Wall of Sound' indebted and harmonica featuring, If Love Is The Law, seamlessly glides into the groove-based, disco flecked and peppy, She Taught Me How To Fly. With yet further immortal Oasis favourites following in their shimmering slipstream (all carefully cherry-picked from the group's mountainous back catalogue to comfortably suit Gallagher's vocal range). Firstly, in the shape of Half The World Away, which demonstrates just why Oasis - along with classic albums and singles - will also forever deservedly be recognised as one of the very best b-side bands (now sadly a forgotten and lost art). Then, it's one of the big ones, the heavenly Wonderwall. In terms of mainstream recognition / ascendancy and a breakthrough 'hit', this ubiquitous ballad - coupled with its world-beating parent long player, (What's The Story) Morning Glory? - really put Oasis on the map in the mid-nineties and was the point at which, the group's success went through the ceiling all over planet earth. With their music and message, travelling afar and reaching millions! The starry-eyed romanticism of Wonderwall's yearning lyrics, are so well-known through pop culture's collective consciousness, that Gallagher could have even let the crowd take over the reins for the entirety of this live rendition. Spine-tingling stuff!
Returning to Noel's solo output, with House Music piano and hook-laden, up-tempo dance beats, the firecracker that is AKA... What A Life! (which has now become one of his calling cards), gives way to the chilled The Right Stuff. Prior to Gallagher delivering undoubtedly the most famous song that he has ever sung - the anthemic, spiritual and uplifting, Don't Look Back In Anger. What can be said about such an adored track that hasn't already been said? It's both a beautiful masterpiece and a glorious showstopper, which has now taken on a life of its own (it's even poignantly a symbol of Manchesters resilience in the face of tragedy, after the Manchester Arena bombing) and will long be remembered as one of Oasis' and Noel's finest moments, among umpteen fine moments! Although this is a much more stripped-back version than on record (Gallagher even plays acoustically), its Imagine-esque piano motif - a loving homage to John Lennon - the gravity of its moving words, the billowing chorus (ranked #1 in NME's 'Most Explosive Choruses Of All Time' list) and its scintillating lead guitar solo (tonight provided by former Oasis and Beady Eye member, Gem Archer), would have made more than a flawless finale.
But, that's not all folks, as Gallagher announces: "We're going to get The Modfather out!" to roars of delight and along struts a familiar face in Paul Weller, with the pair bumping fists as a sign of their unshakeable camaraderie. With two all-time greats joining forces onstage (who each share the same desire to push things forward, yet are still happy to indulge in some nostalgia at gigs and roll back the years, as they know just how much this means to their core fanbases). They proceed to both strum electric guitars as Paul sings The Jam classic, Town Called Malice, with Noel joining in on the infectious "Ba, ba, ba, ba, badaba..." section. Witnessing such interplay between two rock 'n' roll luminaries first-hand, is priceless! A definite 'You had to be there' moment. The time has flown by, and afterwards, Noel says a heartfelt: "Thank you very much, we've got time for one more. Thank you for coming out to see us, have a great weekend and a safe journey home. Goodnight."
After saluting spectators (and known for being against encores), the set list reaches its climax with a fitting, rousing and unifying cover of All You Need Is Love by The Beatles - one of Gallagher's biggest and most famed musical inspirations (and Weller's too) - with both trading verses and coming together on the stirring chorus, which helps embed its profound message. Total class! As the last note rings out and with cheers of joy and appreciation from the audience, Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds - who all look like they enjoy playing live immensely and never once sound rote, with each of their contributions adding extra bite and colour - wave goodbye and take a collective bow. Before Noel steps up to the microphone stand once more and sounding like a farmer, with tongue-in-cheek, jokingly asserts: "Get off my fucking land... Get off my land!!!!!" while smiling and pointing his index finger at concert goers. On an absorbing and unforgettable night, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds not only triumphantly soared across the sky over Bristol, but their unreal music swooped its way into people's hearts and memories. Somewhere that it's certain to remain for the rest of their lives!
Interestingly, when once asked in an interview about his drive and love of songwriting, as well as being part of a dying breed. Having already gone on record and admitted that penning Live Forever was a real turning point for him, Noel simply replied: "I still feel that the greatest song ever written is round the corner."
Words and photos - Steve Bateman
A very special thanks to Simon @ Plaster Creative Communications, for all of his time and help.