Outside San Francisco’s Masonic, a modest but modern venue nestled in the city’s upscale Nob Hill neighborhood, thousands of Harry Styles fans had spent hours – some, even days – waiting on the steep sidewalks. The mob would feel smaller inside the venue, during a show that was the most intimate many of them had ever seen the boy-band heartthrob play.
It was more than the screams that made Styles’ first official tour date as a solo artist feel like he was playing to a football stadium rather than a theater. At 23 years old and with only 10 songs to his name, Styles has the charm, presence and feistiness of a veteran rocker twice his age, strutting and strumming across the stage with a delicate power that makes him seem as accessible as he is otherworldly.
Styles and his carefully curated band took the stage Tuesday night after Muna, a California electro-pop trio that brought the house down with a one-two punch of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” and their own “I Know a Place.” Lead singer Katie Gavin set the tone for the night, building upon the joyous mood of the crowd. “Harry has built his career, his essence, on kindness,” she earnestly said to deafening screams.
After a brief delay due to a fire alarm that dared to shut the whole night down, Styles finally made his grand entrance to a loop of the “Ever Since New York” harmonies, already intoxicating on his self-titled debut album but nearly hypnotic as the lights dimmed to reveal his guitar-holding silhouette on the pink and floral curtain that was hung after Muna left the stage. Here, we were introduced to Harry’s first persona of the night: folk troubadour. From “New York” on, he displayed his most tender, rootsy side, performing more album ballad cuts like “Two Ghosts” and “Sweet Creature” – the latter met with a sea of fan-made pink hearts that were held up throughout the song. Much earlier than anticipated, Styles reminded everyone exactly where he came from, offering a tender take on the anthemic One Direction fan favorite “Stockholm Syndrome.”
Following “Sweet Creature,” Styles disposed of his floral jacket – part of a matching, two-piece floral suit – and launched into Act II: raucous rocker. A Jagger-ian strut propelled his body across the stage during “Only Angel,” and he gyrated to the sexy “Woman.” During that same track, a fan threw a rainbow flag on stage, and in direct opposition to the song’s heteronormative storyline, he subversively twirled around with it before attaching it to his microphone where it remained for the rest of the main set.
By this point, Styles had completely loosened up, shedding the semi-serious (possibly even nervous) mode of his set’s first half. He began to perform a few covers, a twist that was as crowd-pleasing as it was brilliant. He first tackled “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart,” a piano ballad he co-wrote that Ariana Grande sung on her 2014 album My Everything. He turned Grande’s melodrama on its head, remaking the tearjerker as a down-and-dirty country-rock romp. He did the same with One Direction’s massive, unmistakable breakout hit “What Makes You Beautiful,” a bold choice for an artist setting out to forge his own path.
But Styles has proven time and time again that to be a successful solo artist, you don’t necessarily have to let go or even erase your past. As soon as “WMYB” ended, the band launched into the gritty, glammy “Kiwi” which got an even bigger rise from the crowd than the 1D classic did.
Once the song wrapped, Styles marched off the stage with the rainbow flag as the set was re-arranged and his jacket was revived for the “encore.” It was here that he unveiled his third act and his final persona: the subtle superstar. The show’s final 15 minutes featured a tight trio of tracks, beginning with “From the Dining Table,” a gorgeous, simple guitar tune featured only Styles and primary collaborator Mitch Rowland on guitar. Next, he launched into an incredible take on Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” as he celebrated and highlighted the talented quartet of musicians he culled together for his touring band. He could’ve ended the show with the classic cover and it would’ve felt completely natural, charming and on-brand, but of course he had an appropriately epic goodbye up his sleeve with “Sign of the Times,” the single that officially launched his solo career. Styles’ live version of the anthemic, Queen-inspired, nearly six-minute opus was stirring and triumphant as bright lights bathed him and his fans. The singer looked positively radiant as he shared in this moment, one that rightfully belonged to him, with every person in the room, whether physically present or being FaceTimed, Periscoped or live-texted in.
“You are the best friends any person could ever ask for,” he offered sincerely, much earlier in the night. Blurring the lines of fans and friends is not typical rock star behavior, but then again, Harry Styles isn’t shaping up to be your typical rock star.
Set List: “Ever Since New York” “Two Ghosts” “Carolina” “Stockholm Syndrome” (One Direction cover) “Sweet Creature” “Only Angel” “Woman” “Meet Me in the Hallway” “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” (Ariana Grande cover) “What Makes You Beautiful” (One Direction cover) “Kiwi”
Encore: “From the Dining Table” “The Chain” (Fleetwood Mac cover) “Sign of the Times”
There’s a song called “The Showman” which is a letter to our audience, it’s kind of about performers and how you shouldn’t trust them too much. It’s about me, haha. There’s a funny line, well, I think it’s funny anyway, “I lie for a living, I love to let on but you make it true when you sing along.?
This is an email interview; typographical anomalies are his. Like, are you asking me or telling me? (God forbid Rolling Stone pay a copy editor.)
“They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.“
January 2016. There’s a bench at the top of Primrose Hill, in London, that looks out over the skyline of the city. If you’d passed by it one winter night, you might have seen him sitting there. A lanky guy in a wool hat, overcoat and jogging pants, hands thrust deep into his pockets. Harry Styles had a lot on his mind. He had spent five years as the buoyant fan favorite in One Direction; now, an uncertain future stretched out in front of him. The band had announced an indefinite hiatus. The white noise of adulation was gone, replaced by the hushed sound of the city below.
The fame visited upon Harry Styles in his years with One D was a special kind of mania. With a self-effacing smile, a hint of darkness and the hair invariably described as “tousled,” he became a canvas onto which millions of fans pitched their hopes and dreams. Hell, when he pulled over to the side of the 101 freeway in L.A. and discreetlythrew up,the spot became a fan shrine. It’s said the puke was even sold on eBay like pieces of the Berlin Wall. Paul McCartney has interviewed him. Then there was the unauthorized fan-fiction series featuring a punky, sexed-up version of “Harry Styles.” A billion readers followed his virtual exploits. (“Didn’t read it,” comments the nonfiction Styles, “but I hope he gets more than me.”)
But at the height of One D–mania, Styles took a step back. For many, 2016 was a year of lost musical heroes and a toxic new world order. For Styles, it was a search for a new identity that began on that bench overlooking London. What would a solo Harry Styles sound like? A plan came into focus. A song cycle about women and relationships. Ten songs. More of a rock sound. A bold single-color cover to match the working title: Pink. (He quotes the Clash’s Paul Simonon: “Pink is the only true rock & roll colour.”) Many of the details would change over the coming year – including the title, which would end up as Harry Styles – but one word stuck in his head.
We’ve gotten matching Scottish folds, made each other arts and crafts Christmas presents, vacationed with our families, and had each other’s backs. He is the James Taylor to my Carole King and I can’t imagine a time when he wouldn’t be.
Taylor Swift on Ed Sheeran in Rolling Stone (March 2017) (x)