Hair piled up in a pomaded quiff, dressed in a floral brocaded blue-and-gold suit, playing a big-bodied Gretsch guitar, Harry Styles looks very much a retro-obsessed country rocker. It could have been a young Chris Isaak channelling Gram Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers. Backed by a tight, unflashy four-piece band, the charming seventies-inflected pop-rock of Styles’s debut album was gorgeously buffed and burnished. Ballads shimmered in a haze of harmonies and sensitively picked acoustic guitars, rockers ripped it up with dirty swagger.
If Styles had been playing in a scruffy hipster rock venue, from Shoreditch to Nashville, he wouldn’t have been out of place. The old Art Deco walls of Hammersmith Apollo have certainly resounded to the riffs of plenty of hot little guitar bands like this over the decades – a thrilling version of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain seemed designed to establish their place as a link in a chain stretching all the way back through the annals of rock’n’roll.
The only thing unusual about all of this was the audience. I’m not saying Harry Styles fans are short, but I’m only 5’10” and it is quite rare for me to be able to see over everybody’s heads at a gig. Five thousand girls (most of whom were too young to use the empty bars) sang emphatically, screamed sporadically, chanted noisily and treated the occasion like a teenage rave. It was like seeing The Jayhawks being greeted with Beatlemania. Some of them had been camping out under Hammersmith flyover all week, just for the opportunity to grab a spot close to the stage. The show had to be stopped twice to rescue girls who had fainted in the crush, whilst Styles (who has past experience in such matters) spoke soothingly, asking everyone to look after their neighbours.
Although Styles held the centre with a calm, focused charisma, the former boy band idol’s smooth between-song patter erred on the side of showbiz blandishments, as he perpetually thanked fans from the bottom of his heart with a clichéd sincerity that betrayed his manufactured pop training. These shows represent Styles first live forays away from One Direction, a series of (relatively) small gigs before next year’s Arena tour. His self-titled debut album in May was something of a surprise, forgoing the hi-tech fizz of modern pop for a quirky, retro-inflected collection of intimate, whimsical Americana. It suggested someone intent on making the difficult transition from pop idol to credible singer-songwriter.
I have heard whispers and grumbles that his record company were not best pleased with the change of (One) direction. While his debut reached number around the world, sales were modest and faded quickly, and it has only produced one hit single. Yet in a live setting, with a superb band, the melodicism and emotion of his quirky songs seemed powerfully resonant. Ballad From The Dining Table essayed a mournful beauty that called to mind Ryan Adams. Stonesy rocker Kiwi was a room-shaking showstopper, with Styles hurling himself about with the lithe swagger of a young Mick Jagger.
It helped that his devoted fans knew every word to every song, adding some of the most tuneful choral backing vocals I have ever heard at a rock concert. Their enthusiasm made you wonder: why shouldn’t country rock be considered pop music? For many of these young fans, it probably sounded as fresh as it did in the heyday of The Eagles. When Styles threw in rocked-up versions of 1D hits Stockholm Syndrome and What Makes You Beautiful, performed with relish rather than irony, the two strands of his career fitted together surprisingly well.
Saving his sole hit, Sign of the Times, for a suitably epic finale, this show felt like the beginning of a beautiful musical journey, for audience and star alike.