Out of all the adjectives and one-liners thrown at Johnny Marr, in an attempt to describe him in the wave of PR that has come with his new album and tour, I have a favourite. No, it’s not “iconic” nor is it “god-like genius”; it’s “dapper”. Johnny cuts a well turned-out figure, from the dark strides and shirt buttoned right up, to the light dog-tooth jacket topped off with the obligatory “Manchester” haircut and wielding the Olympic White version of the Johnny Marr Fender Jaguar. He looks a picture.
There were a fair few similarly coiffured individuals in the audience tonight but although those blokes may imagine JM, Noel and Liam, or John Squire looking back at them from their mirrors in the morning, I have to tell them that it’s hard to carry that look off, and most of them weren’t making it!
Johnny can carry it off because he remains one of the coolest musicians around. Always compact and bijou he’s more toned and angular with a harder look, fighting off the passage of time far more successfully than the middle-aged bunch who made up the crowd this time around.
Yet he came on to the stage as if he was nervous, trying to gee himself up with a bit of Mancunian swagger and the hint of a simian stroll. He needn’t have worried. The welcome was rapturous and as the lights came up on the venue there was another hair do on display; the quiff. Smiths and Morrissey fans were well represented and therein lies a problem.
Most of the set was based on his new album, his first solo album as he terms it, released twenty-five years after the demise of The Smiths. In the meantime he has written, played and produced with everyone and everybody. His influence is everywhere but not obvious. You can hear echoes of this in live performances like tonight, in new songs like Upstarts, New Town Velocity and the title track The Messenger. All but a couple of the tracks from The Messenger were on show and to me this is good stuff, and it allowed JM to show what a truly exceptional guitarist he is.
But….on the all-too-few occasions when I have seen JM play in his own right I’ve always had the feeling that a good proportion of the audience are just waiting for him to get all that “other stuff” out of the way and get on with The Smiths greatest hits. He seems to have found it hard to throw off this legacy and establish his own material as being as valuable, as relevant and indeed as good as the stuff from almost thirty years ago. Certainly his lantern-jawed erstwhile compadre has had no such trouble over the years, but then songs by The The, Electronic, or Modest Mouse do not have the emotional power and connection of a Trouble Loves Me or a Speedway. As one Morrissey fan once said to me you won’t get many people in tears listening to someone play Getting Away With It.
Is it an unfair comparison? I think so. JM has always been a collaborator rather than a front man. To use a cliché he gets his guitar do the talking. To me he is a one-off, a bit like another JM, John McGeoch, in that he creates sounds unlike anyone else and makes them part of excellent songs.
As much as I love The Smiths and his part in their legacy I would rather he had filled the whole set with new or recent material and a smattering of Healers songs. There is still relatively recent material that was played live once or twice and has never seen the light of day since, as when The Healers performed at MVC. Tonight there were five Smiths’ songs on show; crowd-pleasers all, but too many. The one token “other” tune in the main set was Forbidden City written with Bernard Sumner, and Karl from Kraftwerk, for Electronic.
The support, F.U.R.S, went down well but seemed to just mooch on, play a few entertaining and well put together tunes, and almost apologetically shuffle off again. I suspect and hope that there is a lot more to them than that.
For Johnny from the start the pace was fast with The Right Thing Right, the opening song on The Messenger, and he picked up on the energy from the crowd right away and it was obvious that he wanted to keep it going with Stop Me If You Think….. all the way through to I Want The Heartbeat.
The encore was long (“a bit of fun on a Saturday night”) with the incongruous I Fought The Law, then Electronic‘s Getting Away With It, How Soon Is Now (Jesse Tobias should watch a video of this), and the obligatory There Is A Light…… These last two had the place in uproar; everyone singing along football crowd-style, taking the roof off.
It ended a great night and a superb show but I went away with the niggling feeling that the audience didn’t do him justice. It must be a quandary. He is rightly and obviously proud of The Smiths but the prominence of their songs in the set such as Bigmouth Strikes Again and London, seemed to set an expectation in the crowd so that anything unfamiliar was treated with a modicum of enthusiasm, polite applause and respect but they were really waiting for the favourites.
Me? I was waiting for Down On The Corner.
Set List (I Think)
The Right Thing Right
Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before
Sun & Moon
Bigmouth Strikes Again
Word Starts Attack
New Town Velocity
I Want The Heartbeat
I Fought The Law
Getting Away With It
How Soon Is Now?
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
Photos Stephanie Colledge
Review Ian Gelling