After seven years in One Direction, Harry Styles is on his first solo world tour. Will Gompertz has been to see him in Paris before the singer hits the UK this weekend.
It is 20:59 on a warm October evening in Paris.
It’s warmer still inside the legendary L’Olympia music hall on the Boulevard des Capucines; the walls of which can tell tales of other hot nights, with Edith Piaf in the 50s, the Stones and the Beatles in the 60s, followed by Bowie, Madonna, The Grateful Dead, Nina Simone – anyone who’s anyone, basically.
The 2,000 highly excited young fans (the audience is entirely female, barring the odd dad chaperone and your correspondent) waiting in a state of tremulous expectation for the night’s show to begin, couldn’t care less about the venue’s past.
They are here for one thing, and one thing only: to be part of their own piece of history.
At 21:00 precisely, a sea of smartphones appear above the canopy of teenage heads. A chant breaks out.
“Harry! Harry! Harry!”
This lot expect things to start on time.
A thin, makeshift curtain, decorated with a few spring flowers, obscures the stage. When it ripples, the crowd gasps. When a spotlight reveals a silhouette of a figure holding a guitar, the screaming starts.
When it drops to reveal that figure to be Harry Styles standing in front of a microphone, wearing a floral red Gucci suit, an ear-splitting hysteria breaks out. The crowd surge forward.
This is what happens when the 23-year-old singer walks into a room.
“Tell me something I don’t already know,” he sings.
There’s nothing they don’t already know about his song Ever Since New York, or any of the other tracks on his recently released first solo album. Two thousand voices joyously sing along.
Styles is supported by a four-piece band: Sarah Jones on drums, Clare Uchima on keyboard, Adam Pendergast on bass, Mitch Rowland on lead guitar. They too are decked out from head-to-toe in Gucci.
Jones – a visual and sonic presence throughout – is elevated on a raised platform just behind The Main Man. They make a tight combo.
The stage set is modest, just a ruched red curtain backdrop. This is an intimate gig. The first stop on a credential-building European tour aimed at establishing Styles as a bona-fide pop star, not some wannabe pretender from a manufactured boy band.
He keeps it simple. There is something of a young Jonny Cash about him at this stage.
A solid, surprisingly modest performer singing his catchy tunes with confidence and sincerity while rooted to the spot. And so it goes, with a “bonsoir” here and “you’re all beautiful” there.
Until Only Angel, when the red curtain backdrop gives way to a mighty lighting stack which becomes the show’s sixth performer, throwing the sort of choreographed shapes that Styles was once instructed to do in One Direction but now appears to have happily abandoned. He takes it up a notch.
Mic in hand, he channels his inner Jagger and performs the moves he must have rehearsed a thousand times in front of his bedroom mirror: the strut, the clap, the pout. He nails them all without ever really letting go.
“Everybody’s alright?” he asks
[The audience screams.]
“Who’s from Paris?”
[The audience screams.]
“Who’s not from Paris?”
[The audience screams.]
Audience and performer are simpatico, hard wired. This is a love-in. It is not rock’n’roll. There’s no anger, no wildness, no danger. It is polished, professional entertainment.
The singer’s early Cash-like cool ebbs as his self-deprecating patter and well-meaning instructions to “be kind” and “embrace someone you don’t know” pitches him somewhere between a Sunday school teacher and a shiny-suited children’s entertainer.
And then the chants begin. Not for Harry this time, but for one of his songs, Kiwi. Styles smiles. And diverts. To his past and One Direction. Which he embraces, acknowledges, and respects.
He is classy. As is his re-working of the band’s early hit What Makes You Beautiful. The place goes wild.
But they want Kiwi more. So he gives it to them. And they go wilder.
“I think she said, ‘I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business’.” The crowd swoons and screams.
And then, a couple of numbers later, his time is almost up.
“I only have one song left,” he says. Up go the chants again, “Kiwi! Kiwi! Kiwi!” He laughs, resists and sings Sign Of The Times instead.
And then waves goodbye and exits stage right, before returning, to touch his heart, and leave again. Tears and more screams fill the air. The band plays on.
A little later, when I leave, a large crowd of young women are waiting patiently outside.
One of them asks if Harry is still in the venue. I’d been with his team and knew he was long gone. I tell her so.
“But how do I know that I can believe you?” she asks.
I shrug. The truth is Styles had probably jumped into a waiting car while the band was still looping Sign Of The Times and the crowd was holding its collective breath desperately hoping for another encore. Such are the practicalities of showbiz.
I don’t know how much longer they waited, but I do know every one of the 2,000 fans who crammed into that 19th Century music hall and made it shake to its foundations, had got their money’s worth.
They got what they came for – their piece of history.
As for Harry Styles, he seemed to have a ball too. He clearly loves the freedom of being his own man, doing his own thing. Which he does with oodles of charm and notable technical assurance. He is very good. Albeit still a work in progress.
He’s still too cautious to match Robbie Williams’s post-boy band artistic heights, nor can he yet take his place among the greats whose ghosts haunt L’Olympia.
But he is – as they say in Paris – en route.