This Johnny Marr article was written by James Sweeney, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Hazel Webster
After years of being indie’s most sought after hired gun, melodic maestro Marr takes centre stage and thrills with a career spanning set list.
By the end of the menacing Smiths classic ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’, an audience consisting of both middle aged indie veterans and energetic teens in equal measure begins its third rendition of the now standard live show chant of “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny Fuckin’ Marr.” Far from the uptight, static, head-down atrocity that often plagues the stage when a revered guitarist tries his hand at being a frontman, Marr is an assured, kinetic showman who seems to improve with every gig. A combination of vintage Mancunian swagger and glam rock flamboyance which shouldn’t work on paper but comes up trumps in practice, tonight the former Smiths co-writer transitions seamlessly between the immortal classics that gave him his reputation and the recent solo songs that have helped enhance it.
Until recently it seemed as though Johnny Marr’s post Smiths legacy would be that of an acclaimed journeyman of alt rock, a man who gave an extra dimension to the already considerable talents of bands like The Cribs, The The and Modest Mouse while providing a worthy foil to fellow Indie pioneer Bernard Sumner in Electronic. This changed in 2013 with the release of urgent, melodic debut album ‘The Messenger’ (excluding the thankfully forgotten ‘Boomslang’, released under the name Johnny Marr and The Healers in 2003) and last year’s quick fire follow up ‘Playland’. Both albums found Marr wearing the teenage influences of punk, glam and new wave firmly on his sleeve whilst managing to cherry pick hallmark sounds from his own monumental back catalogue at the same time.
Sporting a jet black mod haircut and a shirt that’s louder than a Spinal Tap amplifier, the pioneering tunesmith struts onto the stage to a rapturous reception and opens with ‘Back in The Box’, a euphoric ode to hedonism from his last album that gets the crowd simmering thanks to its spiralling riff and memorable chorus. What follows next is a Grade A performance of the majestic ‘Still Ill’, a bedroom anthem from The Smiths’ self-titled debut that reaches near perfection on record thanks to Marr’s melancholic jangle and Morrissey’s inimitable lyrics.
One of the biggest surprises of seeing Marr live is just how well he pulls off the tunes from his former band. Often when a seminal writing partnership breaks up it’s the vocalist that carries the songs better due to his/her voice being far harder to replicate than the musicians guitar parts. In this instance though, the sheer virtuosity of Marr’s guitar playing means that his versions are just as distinctive as those of his former partner and on some songs including the aforementioned ‘Still Ill’, he actually manages to outdo old Mozzer.
Although the long-time sideman has maintained a high standard throughout both of his solo records, tonight some tunes fair better than others. ’Easy Money’ goes down a treat, with its sleazy guitar riff and outrageously infectious chorus that sends the crowd bouncing into the same sort of energetic frenzy that is offered to Smiths classic ‘Panic’ later in the set. Even better is the slow burning ‘New Town Velocity’ played in the encore with its vintage Marr riff and lyrics referencing the 2011 London riots. On the other side of the coin is ‘Generate! Generate!’, a poor choice of a single from the solo debut that feels formulaic and seems to strive too hard for the sort of impassioned, intelligent pop that Marr usually does so effortlessly.
While Johnny Marr’s vocals are never going to set the world alight, he achieves something slightly greater than mere competence by taking a chameleon like approach to his vocal delivery. When he’s playing Smiths songs he does his best Morrissey wail and when he’s unleashing his brilliant rendition of Electronics’“disco song” ‘Getting Away With It’ he emulates Bernard Sumner. Any oomph lost by the absence of the original vocalist, however, is more than made up for by Marr’s passion, energy and above all the instant authenticity brought to the tracks by his guitar playing.
A very good gig is made great by the final quarter where Marr really ups the stakes. The final song of the set proper is The Smiths’ iconic love and death hymn ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’. Without Moz’s unmistakable presence to highlight the songs dark undertones, Marr’s live version strives for pure euphoria and nothing else. The atmosphere peaks as Marr repeats the chorus numerous times while being almost overpowered by the communal roar of the fans. This is the sort of crowd pleasing anthem that every artist would kill to have in their locker and it’s delivered spectacularly. The show is wrapped up by a spiky, fun fuelled cover of The Primitives’ ‘Crash’ which features a cameo from Marr’s own son Nile (tonight’s support) and an outstanding rendition of The Smiths’ angst ridden anthem for loners ‘How Soon is Now’.
While it’s more than likely that the peak of Johnny Marr’s career is always going to be his time with The Smiths, by embracing his past both on record and in tonight’s show he also looks set for a very promising future. Johnny Fuckin’ Marr indeed.