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REVIEW / No mod cons, thanks: How to go from mod to hippy in a little under 15 years - Jim White watches Paul Weller wow the Royal Albert Hall

According to the biographical notes in his glossy 'Match Day' programme, Paul Weller suffered several years of total creative block after he turned 30 in 1989. Four years on, the prose suggested, he had emerged from the darkness a wiser, stronger, more mature performer. When he popped, with minimum fuss, on to the Albert Hall stage it was immediately clear that one thing. at least, had changed. The Weller hair, on which hours of creative work had been lavished over the years, had been left to its own devices. From the darkness it had emerged as a naughty schoolboy mop with, apparently, a total block on shampoo.

As the subdued coiffure implied, this was to be a no-nonsense Weller. Dressed down in a long-sleeved grandad shirt and nondescript brown jeans, he came accompanied by an Opportunity 2000 group: women on bass and keyboards balancing men on acoustic guitar and drums. In the middle, Weller, all elbows, collar-bone and Peter Beardsley jaw, chopped angularly at his guitar.

This tight fivesome immediately embarked on the great swathe of material Weller has written since his crisis. All of Wild Wood, the splendid new album, was to be performed, together with half-a-dozen as yet unrecorded new songs. And no matter how hard the lad in the nostalgic front-of-stage scramble shouted for 'In The City', there was to be no looking back.

In his Style Council days Weller seemed to be a man searching for a musical identity, trying on forms as a snappy dresser might jackets in a tailor's shop, to see if any fitted. Here he looked snug in his new harmonic outfit. Almost everything he tried worked: the French boulevardier shuffle during a blistering version of the title track from Wild Wood, the Carlos Santana guitar licks, even the trippy version of 'Magic Bus' performed in strobe lighting as an acid bubble light- show played on the back-cloth. At this point the thought occurred that, while it took The Who three years to transmogrify from mods to hippies, Weller has taken five times as long to cover the same distance.

Fortunately, despite the occasional Quo- style mega-ending which would have benefited from acquaintance with the pruning shears, he has too much cool to take the next step into progressive self-indulgence. Everything he did was underpinned by a dynamic rhythm driven by bassist Rowanda Charles and drummer Steve White, who, wisely on a night as chilly as this, came wrapped up in an Alf Garnett muffler. And you can't play Rick Wakeman with a unit as neat as that behind you.

To complement his song-writing maturity is a new voice. The fury and violence that used to stalk the back of the Weller throat, and which he had to physically restrain with a clenched jaw, have gone. If he had sung a ballad called 'Amongst Butterflies' in the old Jam days, he would have sounded as if he wanted to tear the creatures wing from wing. Now that he no longer sings through teeth and a wad of chewing gum, his voice has been released from its angry chrysalis to emerge a wonderful thing: adaptable, smooth, at times almost moving. When he brought on his partner DC Lee (oddly wearing a matching his-and-hers hair-style) to help him through a couple of numbers, she didn't show him up, which is quite a testament. He showed his respect for her larynx, incidentally, by waving his pint pot in her direction when she departed.

What gain he has made in the voice, however, seems to have been at the expense of lyrical power. Writing about violence on public transport, small-town pettiness or how to solve problems in the judiciary, Weller was the sharpest social observer of the New Wave. Now he has gone all poetic, inhabiting a Woodstockian world of natural phenomena. Here we had 'Above The Clouds', 'Shadow Of The Sun' and 'Like A Dream On An Ocean.' Next thing, he'll be joining Sting in a crusade against mahogany.

But whatever he was singing about, and he had enough spanking new work to keep it up for nearly two hours, Weller made compelling viewing. Even when he turned his back on the audience to address his piano, the sight of the back of his barnet bobbing was strangely magnetic. At one point during the encore, as he was hammering away at the keys, a dancing Noddy glove puppet popped up over the back of his instrument, prompting something no one ever thought they would see: a big Paul Weller grin.

During the second encore, an Albert Hall jobsworth switched on the house lights as a hint that time was up. Everywhere you looked, the audience was on its feet, applauding. These were people who would have donated blood for a quick run-through of 'Going Underground', 'A Town Called Malice' or 'You're The Best Thing'. Instead, they were treated to nothing that was more than three years old. And they loved it. Their reaction suggested that, for once, the programme notes may not have been marinated in hyperbole.

(Photograph omitted)