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Johnny Marr may never grow old. Chronologically he’s always been four-and-a-half years younger than Steven Morrissey, but where once they ran together in the smartest new gang in town, the singer’s descended into crotchety windmill-tilting, and the guitarist now seems a generation younger: fitter and sprightlier, socialized into the modern pop world of project one-offs, Facebooked tour tales and peer palling about.
“Hand In Glove” turns 30 on May 13th. Marr’s 50 this Halloween. Both ages seem surprising, in part because The Smiths’ tidy recording career never gathered moss, and in part because Marr’s serial short-term project-hopping’s blurred together for all but his most ardent followers. In pop fandom, most Smiths generalists would have as much trouble listing all Marr’s sideman turns as the average Joe might in naming the 50 states. I’m not saying North Dakota doesn’t matter, but put it this way: I have one Cribs disc and it’s not Ignore The Ignorant.
Anyway, 2013 finds Marr touring a solid and spunky “debut” solo record (a disingenuous tag, considering 2003’s Boomslang), and The Messenger’s vivacity was in full bloom at the Toronto show I caught last weekend (Phoenix Concert Theatre, April 27th). Marr bounded out to the LP’s stomping opener, “The Right Thing Right,” and steered the ship through one of the dandiest opening concert salvos I’ve heard in a good while.
As an extended artist-fan hug, the spell was greater than its sum of parts: a few Smiths tunes, a few of the better new songs, a middling Electronic single. This was about the erstwhile boy wonder magician commanding the spotlight as both singer and guitar hero, wiggling hips and pursing lips while his fingers – those magnificent fingers – pulled ringing chords and twinkling arpeggios out of his trusty Fender Jaguar, dazzling a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that clearly came primed for revelry. One of the liveliest multi-generational crowds I’ve seen in many a Toronto club date, to be honest.
What oceanic pool of restraint and resolve was Marr drawing from to allow Morrissey the pulpit in those Smiths days? Not that he was exactly Teller to Moz’ Jillette, and not that it was a bad decision from a legend-building POV, but he was so quiet. England understood him, but rockist America never did: a hapless 2003 Rolling Stone “greatest guitarist” issue left Marr off the list. The Messenger barely dented the Top 100 over here. The Marr we saw Saturday night seemed very comfortable as the billed artist, all the chops, haircut and quips you could ever need. All those years spent playing someone else’s foil – whether to genuine pop icons or indie bands of varietal worth – seem sadly unnecessary. He could’ve been Clapton, not Ronson.
The price of that deference is he’ll always share the bill with the elephant.
Rapture greeted every Smiths song on the docket. Not surprising. The single-minded, youthful drive that fueled Marr’s Smiths arrangements not only marks them as immediately identifiable, but also of a higher caste. When I saw Marr tour in 2003 he wasn’t doing Smiths, a huge concession given his rock ex-wife had been dipping into the canon for years. A decade later, Marr’s rethink pays off in explosions of joy, that electric twelfth-man vibe which elevates a show to a capital-E Experience. Marr’s not pissing around with his selections, either. No cultishly adored B-sides here: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” “The Queen Is Dead,” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” all punctuated the main set. Maybe some of us would’ve fainted if “Girl Afraid” appeared in the playlist, but come on: look at those four songs! If live music’s best enjoyed as a communal whomp-whomp, can you go wrong with the breezy verbosity and chiming pre-chorus riffs in “Stop Me,” or the deliriously fatalistic singalong romanticism of “There Is A Light,” or the hilarious imagery and psycho-metallic soloing in “The Queen Is Dead,” or the 60-mile-an-hour thrill ride guitar breaks of “Bigmouth”?
No, you cannot.
“G’night!” he shouted after “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” He turned to go, the club buzzing like the Leafs had just won a playoff game. Oh, you imp.
As a singer of Smiths songs, Marr is no Morrissey. Those note-bending yodels have sharper contours than you think. And some lyrics’re meant only for certain jawlines. But if his tone’s not quite there, he does share a certain mid-range timbre, and with the simpatico backing provided by guitarist James Doviak, drummer Jack Mitchell and bassist Iwan Gronow, the music outpoints anything Morrissey’s employed in his Smiths exhumations. With apologies to Rourke and Joyce, Marr is the sound of The Smiths, and each oldie unfolds exquisitely in its creator’s hands. It makes you ache a little over that severed alliance, the divorce with no winner.
Google “Lorne Michaels Beatles offer,” and hope Jimmy Fallon’s got a chequing account.
The second half of the main set flagged, as Marr strung too many Messenger songs together. And I don’t know why he completely ignored Boomslang; a couple picks would’ve spiked the punch. All told, 10 of 12 Messenger tracks made the cut. Too many, even though the second half included the terrific new waveish title track, the splendidly melodic “New Town Velocity,” and some beautifully expansive, extended soloing on “Say Demesne.”
The encore fully restored the buzz: the star in a crimson “Johnny Fucking Marr” tee ($30 at the merch table!), an enthusiastic “I Fought The Law” with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew guesting, a de-synthesized “Getting Away With It,” and a housequaking “How Soon Is Now?” With Doviak handling the two-note sigh, Marr grabbed the shivering Bo Diddley rhythm and played it like no Morrissey sideman ever has, its swampy ripples and curves in all the right places, with a knee-weakening resonance that satisfied the mind as much as it stirred the heart. Songs that saved your life, indeed.