By time I arrive at the snow sprinkled Ritz, the devoted throngs have gathered and eyes are fixed on the stage as though awaiting some kind of messiah. Johnny Marr’s album may be called 'The Messenger ' but he’s not here to preach, he’s here to make music, to share with us an inspired selection from his colossal back and current catalogue. As each song flashes before me like a prolonged thunder and lightning storm I’m once again bowled over by the absurd amount of talent this man possesses.
Kicking off with 'The Right Thing Right,' I’m instantly pulled straight in. A major rock and roll river’s just burst its banks! This song punches you in all the right places and tickles you playfully in others. 'Stop Me If you Think You’ve Heard This One Before 'follows so swiftly I can barely register the fact that I’m hearing one of my favourite Smiths songs live. What struck me immediately is how naturally Marr inhabits the vocals. He manages to do the exact same thing when shortly after he sings Electronic’s 'Forbidden City'. He’s not trying to sound like his singing/lyricist partners but it feels like he crawls into a space in their head and almost channels their words as though he’s just playing yet another instrument – it doesn’t feel at all strange to hear him sing either Smiths songs or Electronic songs. It feels right, it feels good!
Johnny Marr is a showman without being ostentatious or over-bearing in any way. He cuts a smart, clean look, stylish and totally in control of the sizeable dynamics operating on that stage. He talks about the Ritz being a bit of a special place for him as it was the venue where the Smiths were first officially exposed to the world. There was a whiff of nostalgia and local folklore in the air for most of the night. It was kind of inevitable with five Smiths songs in the set and Marr referencing local street names and summers gone by. 'The Queen is Dead' sounded huge and dangerous and as relevant as the day it was written “Past the Pub that wrecks your body/And the church all they want is your money/the Queen is dead, boys and it’s so lonely on a limb.” Hearing the words coming out of Marr’s mouth somehow underlined to me how much he has and does go out on a limb. He’s never toed the line, he’s never done what’s expected of him (other than consistently create incredible music).
Johnny Marr encapsulates freedom for me, freedom from the past, freedom to create your future and so despite the echoes of yesteryear that were reverberating against the grand old walls of the Ritz there was a sense that he was also exorcising the past, dragging it up and letting it be witnessed as the amazing beast it is, as was certainly the case with 'How Soon is Now'. It felt as though an enormous underground current was dragging us back and forth, engulfing the entire audience in the wailing, discordant energy that track contains. But there was no clinging to this beast, he conjured it up and let it go! But, for me, what was truly exciting about this night was the vibrancy of the Messenger tracks. 'Lockdown' was a pinnacle point in a set of standout points – the sea-side town song, the frustration, boredom and creativity all crying out together in a blast of cold, sober promenade wind. The mania and obsession of 'I want the heartbeat' surely got everyone’s cardiac system pumping hard and fast was contrasted beautifully by the bereft, searching sounds of 'Say Demesne'.
To take this tour on the road, Marr has employed a tight and talented crew, with Jack Mitchell’s powerful drumming providing a steady framework and James Doviak’s deft touches on keyboard and guitar complementing the work of the main Magician. Iwan Gronow handled bass duties admirably and also contributed some pretty harmonising with the main Magician.
I loved the theme of rebellion and dissent that ran through the set. We had 'Upstarts', 'The Queen is Dead ' and a cover of one of the best covers of all time The Clash's 'I fought the Law'. Even if the law won in theory, Johnny Marr won tonight. The crowd worshipped him, with grown men professing their love in no uncertain terms. What’s not to love? He’s a true, inspirational hero and I don’t use the term lightly. And lightly or intensely, he knows what to do with a guitar and he knows how to have and give a good time – a REAL good time!
Setlist:The Right Thing Right
Encore:I Fought The Law (The Clash/the Crickets cover)