Johnny Marr – The Duchess, York, 5th March 2013
The ghost of The Smiths will forever follow Johnny Marr around. Like a spectre at every banquet where he feasts, it will constantly be there as both a blessing and a curse. What other band or artist in the last 30 years has produced such a complete and consistently great body of work, yet it is these back pages against which he will always be measured. Be it his extensive session work on guitar in the interim, his collaborations with Electronic, Modest Mouse and The Cribs or even his most recently released first solo album The Messenger, The Smiths’ presence will always be felt.
Faced with this situation Marr has a number of options open to him, ranging from a complete and utter rejection of his past to the wholesale acceptance of it. He would appear to have settled on a position that is much nearer to the fully embracing end of this spectrum and this is very much reflected on this the opening night of a tour in support of the new album. Whilst the main part of the set is bookended by the opening and closing tracks from The Messenger, “The Right Thing Right” and “Word Starts Attack”, and as you would rightly anticipate the fourteen songs in between are drawn heavily from the album, there is still ample space for “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”, which snuck in almost unnoticed two songs in, such was the initial rush of adrenaline; a rather glorious revisiting of Electronic’s “Forbidden City”; and, in Marr’s own words, “a touch of nostalgia” when he took yet another journey through the past with a quite exhilarating “Big Mouth Strikes Again”. The three song encore initially took us on a trip even further back in time care of The Animals’ "It's My Life and I'll Do What I Want", before fast forwarding back into the 80s with Electronic’s debut single “Getting Away With It”, complete with Marr’s beautifully sinuous guitar bridge which delicately fused poise with fluidity, and a concluding “How Soon Is Now” which was as much unexpected as it was astonishing.
At one point during this ninety minute performance Marr told us that he had gotten very sick and tired of reading about The Messenger, about what others thought it was and, probably more accurately from his own perspective, what it clearly wasn’t. He was now just happy to be out here performing its songs. And perform them he did. Whilst one or two moments veered uncomfortably close to rather formulaic rock – “Generate! Generate!” And “I Want The Heartbeat” would be the worst offenders here – the rest positively revelled in the freedom afforded them having been released from their studio straightjackets. “Lockdown” was realised fully formed as a genuinely classic slice of driving post-punk rock; “Say Demesne” shimmered with a style and grace which allied its musical spirit more closely to that of the “The Queen Is Dead” than any other new song this evening, its very essence woven into the mesmeric intricacy of Marr’s Fender Jaguar guitar. And then on the penultimate “New Town Velocity”, he demonstrated just exactly why this is the song from the album he most favours playing as he first uncovered and then unleashed the hidden beauty of its pop soul.
The Smiths lived and breathed a perfect moment in time and enjoyed what was surely a songwriting union made in heaven. And as much as Morrissey will never again be complete without Johnny Marr’s guitar and musical vision, the converse can equally be said of Marr without Morrissey’s words and voice. Marr’s lyrics are far more prosaic and both their meaning and his flat vocal delivery are probably much nearer to those of Bernard Sumner than his former partner in The Smiths. But what Marr clearly lacks in his vocal range he more than compensates for in passion, desire and the fact that his own sheer presence has a strange, natural compatibility with the newer material. When these essential elements are weighed against all that he has previously achieved in his glittering career, with this band and with this music Johnny Marr may well have just attained the right balance between his past and his present.