Last night I did something I never expected would happen. I saw Johnny Marr in concert. Fortunately, Morrissey wasn’t anywhere near the stage. You see, I’m hardly a Smiths fan, but for reasons having everything to do with their lead singer. I remember reading about The Smiths far in advance of hearing them and the hype made my Spidey-sense® tingle; not in a good way. When I finally heard them on MTV with the cobbled together video for “How Soon Is Now” I was intrigued, but not stunned.
The guitar work was stellar with heavily tremoloed Bo Diddley riffs scraping against mournful, train whistle atmospheres. I was less sure of the vocals. But when The Smiths relented and agreed to make videos after that one escaped in The States courtesy of Sire Records, I quickly learned that Morrissey was one vocalist whose repellent, strangulated croon that he saw fit to inject into every space in the not unattractive music would make me turn a deaf ear to The Smiths. And the heaviness of “How Soon Is Now” was an atypical B-side that their US label had [rightly] latched onto. So I moved on, ultimately unmoved.
It was not until after the band broke up when I began to hear covers of their songs that I came to appreciate, in retrospect, the brilliance of the songs in other’s mouths. Whatever Morrissey’s failings for me as a singer, I could not deny that his was the most brilliant lyrical pen of the 80s. The music that Marr brought to the equation gave these lyrics an attractive setting that more than matched their dazzle. Of course, after they broke up guitarist Marr wasted no time in hooking up with singers I liked: Bryan Ferry, Matt Johnson, Bernard Sumner, Neil Tennant. Many of these recordings reside properly in my Record Cell.
When Marr finally released his debut solo album thirty years after The Smiths released their debut single, a friend of mine championed the album, and made certain to send me a copy as a birthday present. The album was a corker, with a rock solid program of winning material that has already occupied my headspace to the extent of waking up this week with the songs already playing in my cranium. With Marr coming to The Orange Peel how could I not go?
The show was opened by Massachusetts’ Meredith Sheldon. She played guitar with a second guitarist providing rhythm and atmospheres for her to play off of. Her songs were a nod in the direction of Mazzy Star’s viscous dreampop albeit not as soporific, and her vocals were strong and unaffected. Nothing at all like Hope Sandoval. She reminded me vocally of Aimee Mann and gave the evening a great start. I later noticed that her backup band member on second guitar was apparently a roadie* for the show as well when he was doing bass tech work after Sheldon’s set.
At ten sharp the show got underway after the between set music revealed such delights as Bowie’s “Breaking Glass;” a song that one never hears in public enough, if you ask me. Cutting a vibrant figure, Marr kicked the show off with “The Messenger’s” irresistible opener “The Right Thing Right.” This was followed by a Smiths’ number; “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.” The cat was out of the bag straight up front. In a town where Morrissey had cancelled his show [for the same venue] three times in the last seven years one might assume that there was pent up demand. Never having spent too much time in the company of Morrissey fans, I can only report that Marr alone got the love with many enthusiastic fans seemingly not missing His Royal Mozzness.
Next it was time for the song that has been playing in my skull all week long. I love “Upstarts!” The melody is an extraordinary thing that leaps like a gazelle in an arrangement that avoids all taint of cliché. There are several songs worth of invention folded into the recipe here, and it makes for an appealing flavor.
Before playing “The Crack Up” Marr asked how many in attendance had “The Messenger” and about a third of the six hundred or so hands of the audience poked up. “Good,” he said. “Then some of you will know this is called ‘The Crack Up'” he exclaimed before ripping into the number.
Then it was time for another Smiths number to pace the set. I recognize and love “Panic” via the great cover by “Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine” from their single of “The Only Living Boy In New Cross.” With the audience singing alone to the “hang the DJ” coda, Marr moved into the lush atmospheric single “New Town Velocity,” the song that hews the closest to The Smiths template on the album. After a program of rockers, the ballad made a needed change of pace.
As much as I’m obsessed with “Upstarts,” I’m equally obsessed with the dreamy title track to the Marr album. During this song only, drummer Jack Mitchell left his main kit for a small electric standup kit adjacent to his main drums where he played the ca. 1984 drums so crucial to the middle eight where everything but the drums and Iwan Gronow’s bass dropped out of the mix for a bar, dub style. Anyone who lived through this period [See: “I Love A Man In Uniform” by Gang Of Four] will recognize the crucial correctness of this sound. Not surprisingly, I was one of the handful who responded to this as it was happening to clap in synch with the drums.
“Generate! Generate!” picked up the pace following the dreamy tributary of “Say Demesne” with some pulse-quickening rock. The next Smiths song was one that was completely unfamiliar. If it wasn’t a single with a video on MTV I simply never heard it. Even then, I might have changed the channel, so “Bigmouth Strikes Again” has zero resonance with me. All I ever knew of it was that was the title.
Fortunately, this lapse [to me anyway] was followed by two scorchers from “The Messenger.” “Word Starts Attack” and “I Want The Heartbeat” were full of vigor and as if to prove my point, the latter saw Marr pogoing while playing his solo to later quip “that was fun!” Agreed, sir.
It was now time for the big finish which saw “How Soon Is Now” played to a rapt audience. This was always one of the biggest Smiths songs in America and the crowd was swept away in 1985 nostalgia. Myself, I liked the touches of dub the soundman worked into the mix to make this seem even more massive than the already monumental original recording. With that, the guitarist winked and said “I’ll see you later” as the band exited the stage for a minute or two before Marr returned sans band for an extended “Please, Please, Please Let me Get What I Want,” that frankly I failed to recognize for the several minutes of its long instrumental buildup. Now that I think about it, this is the only Smiths song by the group in my Record Cell, since I think I own a copy of the “Pretty In Pink” OST, though I can’t remember playing it much at all.
The evening had seen Marr play all but a single track from his new album leavened with a healthy collection of Smiths tunes. Now it was time to stretch out. Up first was the B-side to “New Town Velocity.” “The It-Switch” was a new on to my ears and if I had pocket change, I might have bought one of the autographed 7″ singles at the merch table, but cash was tight this evening.
A highlight of the evening came when the affable Marr displayed venom at the antics of habitual texters in the front row, admonishing them with sarcastic taunts of “I’m sorry, is my rock show interrupting your texting?” before bursting into a cover of “I Fought The Law” all Clash style. He then pulled out a song I had been hoping for with an extended version of “Getting Away With It,” the lone Electronic track getting an airing this evening. It was all re-arranged for guitars only, even though second guitarist James Doviak did have a synth for the occasional seasoning during the evening. It was nice to hear this material live as I always liked the singles from the Electronic debut album.
Finally, I recognized the last song from videos. I even remembered that is came from “Strangeways, Here We Come,” but had to look up the title this morning. The doomed Romanticism of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” is nothing if not a heartfelt way to wrap up a concert. With that, the band took their bows and the evening’s rock was finished. It had been a fast paced and energetic show with enough eddies of introspection to pace it all rather nicely.
The only real drawback was the mix, which occasionally bled into the red for touches of ragged sonics that did the clean, powerful music no favors. Of course, even the 90% of the sound that wasn’t distorted was too loud. So earplugs were a must. Other than that, the evening was a fun and intimate night with a genuine rock legend who in addition to being a well traveled and amiable gent who had played with countless bands, has also just staked out a claim for himself with a great record that picks up on the post-punk sound of his youth and brings it into the present day. Is he coming to your town? Even if you’re not a Smiths disciple… you should go!
Johnny Marr | The Orange Peel | November 20, 2013
- The Right Thing Right
- Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before
- Sun & Moon
- The Crack Up
- New Town Velocity
- The Messenger
- Say Demesne
- Generate! Generate!
- Bigmouth Strikes Again
- Word Starts Attack
- I Want The Heartbeat
- How Soon Is Now?
- Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
- The It-Switch
- I Fought The Law
- Getting Away With It
- There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
Johnny Marr | The Messenger World Tour 2013-2014
Nov. 22 | Nashville, TN | Marathon Music Works
Nov. 23 | Atlanta, GA | The Loft
Nov. 24 | Jacksonville, FL | Freebird
Nov. 25 | Orlando, FL | The Beacham Theatre
Nov. 26 | Fort Lauderdale, FL | Culture Room
Dec. 30 | Tasmania Falls Festival
Dec. 31 | Lorne Falls Festival
Jan. 1 | Byron Bay Falls Festival
Jan. 3 | Busselton Southbound Festival
Jan. 4 | Melbourne | Corner Hotel
Jan. 7 | Sydney | Oxford Art Factory
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* This was in fact Marr’s son, Nile!