Monday, 28 October 2013

Johnny Marr @ Manchester Academy, 12.10.13

If you aren't tired of hearing the words ‘Smiths reunion’ by now then you probably should be, and if the revelations in Morrissey's autobiography (released last week) are as explosive as expected there's every chance you won't be hearing them for much longer anyway.

However, Johnny Marr's hometown show at Manchester Academy earlier this month was enough to make even the strongest objector begin to wonder whether one of the unlikeliest of mooted pop reformations perhaps wouldn't be such a bad idea after all.

It's not that Marr and his band performed badly on the night (they were actually very good) or that he isn’t still capable of electrifying a room with his trademark brand of technical brilliance, but there was something about the event that just didn't quite add up.

The bulk of the set-list was comprised of tracks from last year's well-received debut solo album, The Messenger, and was at its best with the likes of romping, stomping, indie-rock cliché ‘The Right Thing Right’, set-opener ‘Upstarts’ and 'New Town Velocity', the album's highlight, characterised wonderfully by its promotional video in which Marr strides confidently along Wythenshawe's colourless concrete corridors (an act of extreme courage in itself).

But Johnny Marr is a smart man and knows full well that the vast majority of his audience bought tickets to see Johnny Marr of The Smiths as opposed to Johnny Marr of The Messenger (and definitely not Johnny Marr of The Healers). This was sadly, but perhaps best, exemplified by the distinct lull in the room's general energy during Marr's solo efforts, immediately and dramatically bursting back into life the moment the opening bars of any of the several Smiths songs performed on the night filled the air.

It may sound harsh, but it almost feels appropriate to refer to Marr's Smiths renditions as cover versions, such is their immediate and obvious detachment from the original songs. When the man responsible for writing the lyrics and singing the songs decides to do so with a different backing band (as Morrissey often does) he gets away with it, but when the guitarist does the same – no matter how instrumental he may have been in the creation of the source material – it suddenly feels watered down.

Marr's cause isn't aided by the fact he isn't a great singer (though, some would argue, neither is Morrissey) and, despite his best efforts, isn't much of a frontman either. He’s a deft exponent of every rock'n'roll posture there is to know, has bucket loads of that abstract concept some call ‘cool’ and still looks pretty much the same as he did in 1985 (thanks, in no small part you suspect, to the good people at Just For Men) but being lead singer simply isn't his forté and probably never was.

Johnny Marr is undoubtedly one of the finest guitarists and arrangers this country has ever produced and the song writing partnership he and Morrissey formed all those years ago was as good as any. Neither man’s solo work in the intervening period has hit anywhere near the heights of the music they once created together and perhaps now is as good a time as any to finally repair that most severed of alliances and write off the last 25 years as a bad mistake.

After all, if they’re going to give us Johnny Marr from The Smiths and Morrissey from The Smiths, they might as well just go ahead and give us The Smiths.

Words: Dan Burke.
Photo 1: Lindsey Wilson.
Photo 2: Pamela Schofield.

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