"The Changingman", "Aim High", "Brand New Start", "Wake Up the Nation" – one of the most constant themes throughout Paul Weller's solo career has been the notion of change, of pushing forward into the future. It's what separated him from many of his punk contemporaries, who, having scorched the earth of their own musical ambitions, inhabited that barren landscape like cavemen for a short while before doing the decent thing and becoming extinct.
Tonight, Weller opens his show with another anthem of change, the clipped funk of "Into Tomorrow", before a set largely drawn from his new album, Wake Up the Nation. There's no shortage of drive or energy, but the crowd seems unmoved. Even "Moonshine", the punchy album opener, draws scant response: no moshing, no pogoing, barely even a nodding head. It's as if there's a collective thought-bubble above their heads, willing their hero to get this new stuff over with and do "Eton Rifles" or "Going Underground" instead.
It's not uncommon for artists with careers of any longevity to fall foul of their fans' expectations, but Weller's case seems particularly acute; his audience is like an anchor trying to keep him as they most fondly remember him. And clearly, that's not with a toothsome eight-piece string section sat stage left, adding a symphonic soul edge to songs such as "Aim High" and "No Tears to Cry", or lending sweet support when he settles behind the piano for "Invisible".
Things improve with the brusque, assertive "From the Floorboards Up", but the roar of assent which greets Weller's announcement of "an old song" is telling. "Shout to the Top" is warmly received, but it's not until the brittle intro to "Start" that the crowd really gets energised. Following it with the similarly terse "Fast Car/Slow Traffic" is a smart move, luring some of the throng to continue pogoing – but by that time, the most ambitious offerings have gone comparatively unrewarded.
The multi-sectional "Trees", for instance, may be the weirdest thing Weller's ever played, shifting through chunky boogie, swirling reverie and gospelly soul before leaving the singer isolated with his memories, wishing he could "stand tall and feel once more a tree". That's followed by "One Bright Star", which he introduces, not inaccurately, as "a psychedelic tango thing". A few songs earlier, maximum heaviosity was arguably achieved when one song plunged into a cosmic breakdown section whose psychedelic fizzing synth lines, mellotron strings and all-round free-form freak-out abandonment reminded me of long-gone nights groping for secure mental footing at Hawkwind concerts.
More impressive was "7 & 3 Is the Striker's Name", in which the new album's tropes of brisk, clarion-call rocker and brief, jazzy breakdown moments were fruitfully reconciled and visually echoed in the maelstrom of flashing strobes and swooping spotlights wheeling around the hall. With the adapted RAF logo on one of Weller's speaker combos occasionally visible through the dizzying spectacle, it was akin to being caught in the Blitz – a vertiginous thrill which hopefully his fans will come to appreciate when these new songs are as venerated as his past hits.