If you were asked to reel off a list of famous partnerships in rock and roll history, it wouldn’t take you long for you to get to Johnny Marr and Morrisey. Richards and Jagger may possess the longevity and Lennon and McCartney the prolific output, over what was ultimately a relatively short lifespan, but it was Marr and Morrisey that captured the downbeat imaginations of a generation. Historically, this was a cultural and political era as alienating as you could imagine and The Smiths provided a voice for a sub-culture crying out to be heard. During this epoch of excess, Marr and Morrisey were a match made in heaven, but one which unfortunately was only to last five short years. Almost thirty years later, the opportunity to experience one half of this iconic collaboration within the intimate confines of the four hundred capacity Sugarmill in Stoke-on-Trent is therefore an opportunity not to be missed. Tickets sold out within minutes and upon arrival at the unassuming club, the sense of anticipation is palpable.
Marr’s entrance is nonchalant but the thrill of the crowd is tangible as he launches in to Playland, off his most recent album of the same name. It’s a lively opening, full of energy, possessing an upbeat tempo which the crowd respond to. This industrious opening is quickly followed by Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This Once Before. Successfully adjusting his vocals to a more baritone level for this track demonstrates an ability in this field unfortunately not pursued all those years ago. The crowd respond with an overt enthusiasm one would expect from a performance of this famous song. The Right Thing Right completes the opening three songs and with it establishes the dynamic of the evening. One thing is for certain; Johnny Marr knows his audience. His set list tonight is perfectly balanced with material from a highly prolific couple of years as a solo artist and this is complimented by a steady stream of songs by The Smiths that probably haven’t been performed in a venue of this size in the UK for many years indeed.
As if to demonstrate Marr’s consideration for the appreciative crowd, we head back to the latest long-player for Easy Money. The track is a rollicking indie anthem, very British in it’s themes and delivery and it has the crowd in full voice for the first time. Full of swagger, the song allows Marr to demonstrate some of his signature moves and looking very much like a more cultured Al Pacino from the dramatic conclusion of Scarface, he poses theatrically with his Fender Jaguar, thankfully taking the place of a blazing M16.
The focus is very much on Marr throughout the entire show. His band are youthful and seemingly chuffed to be on stage with a legend, happy to accept that tonight is really only about one man. That’s not to say that they don’t play their part, but eyes are solely on Johnny Marr. Having said that, interaction with the crowd is kept to an absolute minimum. It isn’t his strong suit and he cleverly settles on allowing his music to do the talking. The middle of the set explores further elements of his journey through the British musical landscape and a nod to his collaboration with Bernard Sumner in the band Electronic is provided by a heavier rendition of Getting Away With It along with further remainders of how great The Smiths were with a scorching version of The Queen is Dead along with The Headmaster Ritual and final song before the encore, an extended, quite mesmeric version of There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, that almost has the roof off this small, sweaty venue. All of these magnificent moments are accompanied by further reminders of how solid his solo material actually is. Although it may not be defining a generation this time around, songs like Generate, Generate are fantastic, very British rock and roll.
The encore begins with an introduction by Johnny Marr. “Here’s an 80s riff!” he exclaims before launching into the opening strains of Bigmouth Strikes Again. The crowd go berserk and the next four tracks prove to be the pinnacle of the entire show, possessing an unreserved energy that peaks with perhaps one of the greatest Smiths songs ever. How Soon is Now is epic in every sense. Marr’s vocals will never rival those of Morrisey’s but he does a bloody good job tonight and his famous guitar work on the song is undiminished all these years later, creating a quite hypnotic moment of musical magic that nobody wanted to end.
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Review by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto