It’s the first Saturday evening of April and, at any moment now, the predominantly female audience of Birmingham’s Genting Arena is due to be graced with Harry Styles’ presence. For his first UK show of 2018, Birmingham seems like a strange place to kick things off, but the crowd are eager and ready to participate – just the first bar of a One Direction track from Made in The AM, their final album, playing over the sound system elicits a wave of excited shrieking.
It’s fair to say Mabel has warmed up the audience in preparation: there are more than a few people standing up to dance and sing along during hits such as ‘Fine Line’ and ‘My Lover’, while lesser-known songs from her Bedroom EP are still well received. A cover of Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ appeared to receive only a lukewarm reaction initially, though the majority were happy to sing along by the end. Arguably, it wasn’t the best choice of song to cover – the phrase ‘playing it safe’ comes to mind for a new artist like Mabel. The set itself was quite minimalist, if simple, in terms of production, and in this showcased Mabel’s vocal talent as she commandeered the stage with confidence.
Styles appears to have retained some of the boyish charm that worked in his favour as a member of One Direction
There are infrequent bursts of screaming the closer it gets to 9pm, excited groups of fans claiming to spot movement behind the large screens set up in a semicircle formation on the stage. Eventually, the unmistakeable beginning of ‘Only Angel’ kicks in, and the screaming this time does not appear to be just another false alarm. Harry Styles himself charges forward as the screens rise up in a dramatic burst of fog and lights, and the show is underway.
For a man with only 10 songs on his debut album, Styles doesn’t dither. He dances about the stage with relentless enthusiasm for all the up-tempo songs and even cracks out the guitar himself for a few – a true display of musical development from his days with One Direction. He also appears to have retained some of the boyish charm that worked in his favour as a member of his old band, which became particularly evident during his interactions with the audience. Styles has maintained the tradition of showering water on the audience as well as wearing rainbow flags of pride in honour of his long-standing support for the LGBTQ+ community. Before the show began, it was easy to identify more than a handful of flags in the first few rows of the audience and it seemed it was just a question of who the lucky fan might be. As we leave with ‘Kiwi’ ringing in our ears, one fan described his dancing as “more like jumping about…he doesn’t really dance does he?”
He delivers every note with ease, and has managed to use new band members to cultivate a vocal harmony that gives the live performance a new dimension to the album
Musically, Styles has shifted from pop into a more reflective, rock-influenced sound. It’s a sound derived from his written contributions to One Direction, and which hinted heavily at influences for his future solo career. It’s a sound that suits him, too – he delivers every note with ease, and has managed to use his new band members to cultivate a vocal harmony that gives the live performance a new dimension to the tracks from the album. He embellishes his set with a rendition of Ariana Grande’s ‘Just a Little Bit of Your Heart’, the arrangement for which he wrote himself, as well as a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’. There are a few One Direction songs thrown in, which appeal to the crowd’s nostalgia where it’s present, and debuts two new songs, ‘Medicine’ and ‘Anna’. To his credit, Styles’ fans echo the dedication of Directioners; most are perfectly familiar with the lyrics of his new songs though there has been no official release of either track.
As the show comes to an end, it seems clear that whilst Styles has developed a more mature sound, his fans have matured with him. It would be unreasonable to think people would cease to associate him with his beginnings in One Direction. His time in the band is something that is still reflected in his performances and forms a considerable part of his showmanship, from making contact with audience members to not quite mastering the art of dance. However, for now, Harry Styles seems to be striking just the right balance between old and new and it’s something his audiences treasure.