We don’t have kids. But Friday night, as my wife, Michelle, thrust her phone into the air like Lady Liberty’s torch in a feckless attempt to Shazam a song neither of us could identify, we definitely outed ourselves as clueless parents of the childless variety to the fresh-faced phalanx boxing us into our seats.
“It’s ‘Olivia’ by One Direction,” an empathetic young woman in the row behind us offered. Aside from a few songs, I’m not super-familiar with the discography of that phenomenally popular, currently dormant boy band. But we weren’t at the Wells Fargo Center for them, but rather the 1D member who actually wrote “Olivia”: Harry Styles, who’s unscrewed his teenybopper training wheels en route to becoming a proper rock star.
The rest of Styles’ pre-show playlist, featuring the likes of Pink Floyd and Van Morrison, was much more in tune with his British Invasion forebears than anything contemporary, and you’ll recognize this as a deliberate choice if you’ve listened to his self-titled debut. While Styles’ bandmate Zayn Malik has successfully gone the sexed-up, hypermodern R&B route as a solo act, the tousle-headed 24-year-old has musically made his own way. Harvesting the most appealing elements of vintage rock and passing them through a sieve to remove the smoke-stained filth, Styles has added edge without sacrificing much of the aw-shucks universality that made his five-man group a global superpower.
Styles was led in by a lovely and all-too-brief opening set by the rising American singer Kacey Musgraves, whose special brand of open-minded country-western has endeared her to fans way outside that genre — Styles included. “Happy Pride Month, y’all!” Musgraves proclaimed between charming renditions of tracks like “Space Cowboy” and the 2013 pro-LGBT hit “Follow Your Arrow,” well wishes the standing-room-only pit responded to with a furious fluttering of mini multicolored flags.
“Thank you so much for embracing a different kind of music on this tour,” Musgraves, offering major Dolly-meets-Selena swag in black rhinestoned bell bottoms, continued, as a glimmering saddle-shaped disco ball slowly turned above her head. “[Harry’s] fans have gone above and beyond in being great listeners.”
That’s leeway the performer himself bet big on with the release of 2017’s Harry Styles, a spick-and-span, self-written 10-song LP that doesn’t have a whole lot in common with One Direction’s discography. Operating with his sharp band from a cozy stage setup (more “Fab Four on The Ed Sullivan Show than “blowout arena tour”), Styles opened with the glam-rock singalong “Only Angel,” Jagger-bopping in a white tuxedo jacket and dangling his microphone carelessly from its cord, like a Catholic priest swinging an incense burner.
Featuring a rapid string of his new songs, the first third of Styles’ set served as subtle citation of his historical influences — the Elton John-esue piano strut of “Woman,” the folksy Neil Young vibe of “Two Ghosts,” or the rollicking “Carolina,” a catchy T. Rex-lite love song he penned about a memorable date with a mysterious American.
Before long, the self-deprecating Styles reminded the packed house that he’s still somewhat new to this. “I only have one album — I have 10 songs,” he announced, before slipping into “Stockholm Syndrome,” a 2014 One Direction hit he also cowrote. Following up with his gravelly baritone version of “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart,” an original he’d given to Ariana Grande, Styles plunged into the crowd, barricaded by burly security as he jogged to a platform on the opposite end of the building. His farthest-removed admirers suddenly became his front-row fans for earnest acoustic versions of “Sweet Creature” and “If I Could Fly,” another old One Direction cut.
After returning to the main stage and running through the as-yet-unreleased “Anna,” an upbeat Paul Simon-meets-George Michael track that was my favorite song of the night, Styles dedicated time to schmoozing the crowd, singing “Happy Birthday” to a 20-year-old fan named Heather, wishing an expectant mother well, and acting as an impromptu yenta for a 19-year-old Columbia undergrad who implored the singer to help her find a girlfriend.
Distinguishing himself from pop contemporaries reluctant to take any type of stance on anything, Styles pushed a progressive worldview the whole night through, several times grabbing a rainbow “Make America Gay Again” flag and flapping it triumphantly from center stage.
This self-assured inclusivity is a major key to Styles’ popularity, and he could have coasted to a crescendo on the energy of this alone — but the kid still had some jams to kick out. “What Makes You Beautiful,” among the few 1D songs I know, led into the epic, soaring lighter anthem “Sign of the Times,” and then a tight encore highlighted by a scary-good cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”
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“Am I a Harry Styles fan now?!” Michelle, who could not name a single one of his songs prior to this concert if her life depended on it, asked me as we walked out. I think she might be, and that makes two of us.