It’s hard, going on impossible, to outrun a legacy so celebrated and loaded as the output that emanated from Salford Lads Club in the 1980s – but even if others fail to let it go, Johnny Marr avoids letting his live show decline into a ‘remember the Smiths’ convention. In fact, after two years of touring, two studio albums and one live album, Johnny Marr is a strong enough draw on his own merit, to make it one of the busier nights in the Bristol O2’s calendar. One of the more entertaining nights by my reckoning too.
After so many years in the business, first with The Smiths, then in the 90s playing guitar for Matt Johnson in The The, and co – writing and performing songs with Bernard Sumner in Electronic, there is a guarantee of quality. Indeed this becomes evident immediately given how strong the support band were. Man Made, a trio of drums guitar and bass, featuring on guitar and vocals Nile Marr (offspring of Johnny), who delighted in charming an audience with a strong set of original works, and a combination of long, dyed hair, disco-ball jacket and glitter around the eyes. Certainly a touch of his father’s own intensity for distinction.
Marr senior was welcomed rapturously, and soon set about justifying his reception. He opened with ‘Panic’, one of those iconic songs which helped him forge The Smiths’ legacy, one of those anthems of collective indie outrage. His first few songs continued in this energetic vein, setting an upbeat tone for the evening’s proceedings.
As a musician, Marr is as flawless as he is iconic. Even as a singer Marr’s time as a lead vocalist has helped hone his voice to a very good standard – always in tune and not without power. Of course he never matches the sheer attitude and nuance of Morrissey’s unique timbre, but he far surpasses many band vocalists – particularly live. Why is it though that the gig is littered with peaks and troughs of quality and excitement, measurable by the crowd’s reactions.
Every time Marr begins one of the tracks off his own two studio albums, the crowd’s energy wains. Not badly, don’t get me wrong, they still love him, but they listen passively to his new material and don’t engage with the music or the performers, which spoilt the gig’s flow. I’ve been trying to reconcile this reaction by looking at the music. Yes, the lyrics are weak. And the arrangement is designed to give Marr all of the stand-out moments. But it seems the main obstacle to conquering the audience is the audience themselves.
“Anybody have any questions?” teases Marr…
“Are you ever going to get back with your mates from Manchester?”
“Anybody have any questions?” teases Marr, around a third of the way in. “Are you ever going to get back with your mates from Manchester?” comes the response. Excuse me sir, did you pay to come and watch Johnny Marr perform and to celebrate his music? No, I paid to remind Johnny Marr that I preferred the music he did with The Smiths in the 1980s, probably as much a reflection on my age and life at the time the music came out than a reflection on the quality of the music itself.
“I love drunk people. Especially when they wake up and still think it’s 1988” – Marr has the last laugh. But the question alone is enough to explain the lesser reaction to Marr’s current work. It’s a shame that a good half the audience came out to listen to songs by The Smiths. Not least because Johnny Marr has every right to play them, and he plays them well, but it shouldn’t be to the detriment of his other output.
For those who came out to listen to Johnny Marr, this gig was a triumph
Aside from this ongoing struggle with his audience composition, Marr is a success. He intermingles his own album tracks (appreciated by some), with Smiths’ numbers and even threw in the indelible Electronic track ‘Getting Away With It’, which had been skilfully reworked into a format playable by his four-piece band. For those who came out to listen to Johnny Marr, this gig was a triumph – and a justifiably celebratory atmosphere was emanating from the stage, this being the last date of a very long tour.
Johnny Marr signs off in style by inviting his son on stage to play ‘Crash’ by The Primitives, a not too subtle warning to Prime Minister David Cameron, whom he has aimed this song at in earlier gigs. He finishes with ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ – it’s a shame he’s yet to close with one of his own songs. But he gave the crowd what they wanted.