Leeds Metropolitan University,
13th October 2013
We review Johnny a lot on the site but that’s because he works hard, tours a lot, is a living legend and consistently turns in great live shows, as Fergal Kinney explains
Mere weeks before his fiftieth birthday, Johnny Marr still looks as lean and as sharp as ever. A small frame sporting Ray Davies’ mid-1960’s haircut paired with an immaculate burgundy velvet jacket and – towards the end of the set – a black wide rimmed fedora, Marr tonight has all the onstage energy of someone enjoying every bit of his recent career renaissance. Not that enthusiasm for Marr has ever waned – far from it – there just simply hasn’t been enough of him until recently. The last half a decade has seen Marr edge back into the thick of public consciousness, hitting the top of the US Billboard charts with Modest Mouse and adding polish and a shared energy to the glorious frenzy that is the Cribs. The surprising proportion of young faces tonight is indicative not just of the popularity of Marr’s work with the Cribs amongst a younger audience but that the Smiths seem to be as much a force in British music now as they were at their peak. Though last night saw Johnny Marr play a packed out homecoming show at Manchester Academy, tonight at Leeds Met University is no less a celebratory or mutually appreciative affair. People are happy to have Johnny Marr back, and Marr looks – for perhaps the first time – equally happy to greet their appreciation, now from the centre stage. Walking on-stage with guitar already slung around him, Marr begins with ‘Upstarts’, the blistering lead single from this year’s ‘The Messenger’ and a chiming anthem of defiance and rebellion inspired by 2011’s student protests or 2010. ‘I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar it meant that you were a protest singer’ sang Morrissey on Smiths’ single ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’, and here Marr proves that protest singers and acoustic guitars are in no way mutually exclusive. White hot from the energy of ‘Upstarts’, Marr offers the first of six Smiths songs in the form of ‘Panic’ – the ‘Metal Guru’ aping classic is received with unanimous delight.
With a habit of writing music for consistently engaging and sharp lyricists (the obvious, Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Ryan and Gary Jarman), the somewhat clunking lyricism present in some of his recent solo work struggles to match the energy and sophistication of his music, but the moments where he lyrically matches the quality of his own music really shine – the brooding, John Barry-esque ‘Say Demesne’ is one of his most accomplished songs for years and a rare moment of introspection in the form of ‘New Town Velocity’ is equally compelling. Though impersonations of the guitar sound of tracks in the Smiths’ canon like ‘This Charming Man’ or ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ have become accepted currency in indie guitar music over the last three decades, Marr’s performance of Smiths songs is a reminder of quite how original and unmatched his guitar work really is. Though well-worn descriptions of Marr as a guitarist such as ‘jangling’ are not ill-fitting, there’s a diversity to Marr’s guitar work that tends to be overlooked – the frantic ‘I Want the Heartbeat’ wrestles a ‘Lodger’-era Bowie groove between its bursting choruses, and even when stripped of its full apocalyptic clamour, the bare Bo Diddley bones of ‘How Soon is Now?’ manage to haunt and thrill in equal measure.
An increasingly comfortable figure on-stage, Marr’s onstage conversation is wry, self-deprecating and reflective of someone seldom given their owed credit for eccentricity or wit. “I still believe in this shit”, announces Marr with regards to a love of pop music that has motivated his career for three decades, and it’s clear that the audience in Leeds tonight understand this aesthetic in full. Few can boast a more impressive encore than Johnny Marr; Electronic single ‘Getting Away With It’ not only breathes new life into an often ignored gem in his back catalogue but showcases the extent that Marr’s voice has developed since moving centre stage. The wings of final song ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ are clipped by an ill-judged breakdown that may provide some audience participation but ultimately prevents the song from soaring to its full heights. All the same, as Marr exits the stage to the sounds of the Stooges’ ‘Gimme Danger’, the room is no less elated by the return of this showboating-free guitar hero to more than one generation, and one welcome to slip down this Leeds side street any time.