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Harry Styles takes on whole new music direction in solo concert effort

Harry Styles performs at the Chicago Theatre, Tuesday night, Sept. 26, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

After years of parading as a boy band cog, Harry Styles finally enjoyed his rock star moment Tuesday night during his debut solo appearance at the Chicago Theatre. Though which rock star that was is debatable. Styles began the night staged in silhouette behind a large floral curtain, bearing an acoustic guitar over his shoulder and looking like a recreated image of an early Elvis promo photo. Later, as he flowed into song “Woman,” a string of la-la-las and heavy piano hitting was reminiscent of a young Billy Joel. And by the end of the night, Styles was playing nearly all the characters in Fleetwood Mac in a seat-rising version of “The Chain.”

If there is one criticism of the former One Direction standout in his solo effort, it’s that the young singer stays a little too long in the archives, with near replicas of his musical influences. His eponymous debut solo album is rife with influences of ‘60s Brit psych (“Meet Me in the Hallway”), ‘70s folk harmonies (“Ever Since New York”), ‘80s soft rock (“Only Angel”) and even a twinge of country balladry (“Two Ghosts”), with all of it also bleeding out throughout the short 75-minute set that lacked much of the jubilant energy we have come to expect from him.

It’s been nearly two years since One Direction last toured to Styles’ current solo trek, and in that time the singer has done a 180-degree about-face. While it was refreshing to see the 23-year-old venture beyond stale bubblegum pop (even he vocally scoffed throughout a tepid cover of 1D’s “What Makes You Beautiful” that soured from oddly-placed organ), it made one wonder if it was too mature, too soon, from his previous music undertakings.

Harry Styles navigated myriad music styles during his Chicago Theatre concert Tuesday night, Sept. 26, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Harry Styles navigated myriad music styles during his Chicago Theatre concert Tuesday night, Sept. 26, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

His pop tendencies were still relevant on standouts like the ethereal dreamer “Sign of the Times” and wrapped up tightly in the catchy hooks of “Kiwi,” which were helped in the studio by producer Jeff Bhasker (a frequent collaborator of Mark Ronson). For only the fourth show of his first solo jaunt, Styles and his instrumental crew were also incredibly tight, feasting on the energy of the panting crowd and paying it back by delivering pitch-perfect harmonies, synergistic bass and slick guitar and breakneck drums from the indelible Sarah Jones who often stole the show from her elevated perch. Styles made an impression, too, with his patient guitar playing, most notably on the acoustic lullaby “Sweet Creature,” that was a deliberate ballad for young girls’ hearts, evidenced by fans swaying and cheering and nearly fainting in kind.

Even as Styles expands his artistic horizons — including acting (most recently giving “Dunkirk” a box office boost) — he also continues to know his audience well. During various points in the night, he was blowing kisses, running down the front row and slapping hands and engaging the sold-out room with a contest by audience applause for Chicago’s best pizza. “I’ve been overwhelmed by your support since releasing this album,” Styles said in a genuine moment of gratitude, “You’re the best friends anyone can ask for.”

Electro pop act Muna — led by former Chicagoan Katie Gavin on vocals — set the mood by opening the show with danceable numbers including the second Stevie Nicks tribute of the night, a cover of “Edge of Seventeen.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.

Set List:

Ever Since New York

Two Ghosts

Carolina

Stockholm Syndrome (cover of One Direction)

Sweet Creature

Only Angel

Woman

Meet Me in the Hallway

Just A Little Bit of Your Heart (cover of Ariana Grande)

What Makes You Beautiful

Kiwi

Encore:

From the Dining Table

The Chain (cover of Fleetwood Mac)

Sign of the Times

MUNA opens for Harry Styles at the Chicago Theatre on Sept. 26, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
MUNA opens for Harry Styles at the Chicago Theatre on Sept. 26, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times