Harry Styles At Radio City Music Hall, Thursday, September 28th, 2017, Reviewed
Harry Styles is convinced that if Columbia Records had listened to him and released “Kiwi” as the second single, instead of “Two Ghosts,” it would have been a hit and his eponymous debut album would have been a hit, instead of eating Zayn “Harry and I never really spoke” Malik’s dust. While the ever charming and hospitable Mr. Styles is too much the pro at Radio City Music Hall last night to allow the bad news to bum him out, he performs “Kiwi” late in his 80 minute set while demanding a huge singalong, getting it from the teen to lower 20s girls in the audience, stopping the song with a “that was good but you can do better,” starting it again, dancing across the stage in a fury of energy, spraying the front rows with water, unfurling a rainbow LGBTQ flag, slap handing fans and giving it the most energetic performance of the night. And then, after the 14th song, the one he has been ending the show with on the first four nights of his twelve date solo tour of theatres, he performed a 15th song, “Kiwi” again. Think Harry is upset some?
The fans aren’t complaining, though they have sure grown older over the years. Four years after I caught One Direction at Izod Center (a 20K seater now dead, here), Harry’s audience is no longer the tweens that populated that show. Thirteen year olds are now seventeen, seventeen year olds are now 21, and their kid sisters have no interest in 1D, who haven’t been around since 2015 (that would be ten years in tween time). The screams at Radio City Music Hall were loud not deafening (the greatest Jingle Ball of all, 2014, was deafening), though the audience was on its feet from the first row of the orchestra pit to the edge of 3rd row mezzanine, and didn’t sit down, yet were discernibly a little older. It was an absolute triumph for Styles, who instantaneously sold out two nights at MSG next June, and managed the tricky move from good humored boy band member to rock star in waiting. The only mistake, and it was a big one, was not turning on the closed circuit cameras: the kiss of death at a MetLife or even an MSG, but Styles just about gets away with not letting those of us in the further seat see him closely.
The rebrand of Harry worked well for me, while I wasn’t crazy about the album, I can count at least three killer tracks (all ballads), and if the rockers leave him a little flat footed, he sells them well on stage. Muna, the indie pop trio who have dubbed themselves “a punk Wilson Phillip” and identify queer, were catchy –their 2017 debut on RCA (hence the Harry connection) About U is a fine, a little not quite good enough, opened for him. On stage they give it their all, and with the addition of a boy on guitar, are high energy and fun enough, they held the audience.
The superbly produced and very professional evening was tight as a drum, as was Harry and his band of four, though I wish Harry had thought out his set list just a touch more. He began like a Conor Oberst with three slow numbers before unwinding, and he ended with a slow song, followed by that strange first single (a misstep his ex-girlfriend would make a coupla months later) and home. Fortunately, he ended New York on a higher note than usual, with a fifteenth. The interest lies in the performances not part of the ten song album. Over five evenings he has made 1D’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and the song he wrote for Ariana Grande, “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (“Meet Me In The Hallway” has some Lindsey Buckingham in its DNA) constant, while using a fourth song as a changeup. San Fran and LA got “Stockholm Syndrome,” in Nashville he honored the city with Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” (Swift seems to be haunting him, she wrote “Better Man” for LBT, “Two Ghosts” is about her, and they made similar missteps with first and second singles off current and pending albums), back to “Stockholm” for Chicago, but New York beat them all. We got “Story Of My Life,” and it was the biggest song of the night, three girls in front of me were singing and crying at the same time. He also placed it right, the penultimate song before the encore, and it gave him a tremendous momentum towards the end of the set proper. Harry should give it in mind for the arena tour next year. Transgressing between “Story of My Life” and “Kiwi” brought the house down.
As a performer, Styles plays with his effect on the audience, he doesn’t always put it on full force, he lets it flicker like a flame, and (I know but…) it goes in and out of focus. The slow sizzle start is a little uneven, and his “my job is to entertain you, yours is to go crazy…” schtick was stolen from Ed Sheeran (Ed used it way back when during his 200 Standing Room Only concert at Mercury Lounge). For a star as large as he is, Styles seemed a little uncomfortable at first, just a step out of place. As far as the Mick Jagger comparisons go, live on stage isn’t an SNL skit and he isn’t ready for that close up. Styles is the worst selling of the solo 1Ds because classic rock is a form of music that can’t compete with Zayn’s modern pop stylings, but he has the brightest future because he has something the others don’t, he is intensely likable. Zayn was always the best 1D, best voice, best style, best otherness, a star for the 21st century, Styles was more popular, but always McCartney to Zayn’s Lennon, and if Zayn can get over his stage fright he will wind up one of the biggest stars of the 2010s. Styles is a rock star without swagger, the Rolling Stone interview earlier this year might have been varying degrees of bullshit, that still doesn’t mean he wasn’t looking out for his sister on a date at a 1d concert, stopping the show to warn her “I’m watching you” or showing up for her graduation, or endearingly loving to his little knock out of a Mom Anna Twist. No hot stuff rumors surround him, a taste for older women ain’t much, and he is very fortunate in that he doesn’t have an addictive personality and drugs aren’t part of his make-up (again, who knows but…). Unlike Niall, Harry never called his audience a shower of cunts, and has gone out of his way to remind people that the girls who love 1D are the ancestors of the girls who screamed for the Beatles. The floppy haircut so beloved for so long is now trimmed and he looks better for it. Like McCartney, he has maintained his boyish good looks as he nears 24 years of age, he takes his music seriously and while he isn’t a great, he has moments of goodness. He has held the essence of his audience.
The set has a sweet flow, though it takes him awhile to get out from behind the mic. “Even In New York” isn’t a perfect opener (he might want to try “Sign Of The Times” in Boston), the girls screamed right through it. And “Two Ghosts” is great. “Carolina” works as a third song in the set and ups the energy level , “Sea Creatures” is one of his three masterpiece ballads and he might have pocketed it for a little later. He settles in after that, “Only Angel” (the first time he grabs the rainbow flag) and “Woman” are bluesy up-tempo songs building him up for a show stopping “What Makes You Beautiful” with Radio City Music Hall shaking to the insanely catchy na na na na na na na hook. The encore was saved by the reprise of “Kiwi,” but before that “From The Dining Table,” with Harry pleasuring himself and drunk before noon is the best lyric on the album, and the third of the flat out great, undeniable songs. The strings are missed a little. His conversation needs some work but he shouts out Puerto Rico, finds a nineteen year old BOY to sing “Happy Birthday” to, and is very nice to his fans, who he claims to love and I believe him.
At the end, Harry runs up the side to the second mez, I’ve only seen Jarvis Cocker of Pulp ever attempt that before. It is a charming move, rock star cool but not just rock star cool, also rock star kind. Film star cool as well in “Dunkirk,” a good performance in an important movie. Styles won’t make it big, he already is big so there is nothing left to make. But if he just figures it one step closer, he can own some of the temperament of the name we conjured earlier, a man who once interviewed him, Paul McCartney. One of Style’s tee shirts reads “Treat People Kindly”: Styles practices what he preaches and that, in fact, is what makes him beautiful.