Johnny Marr at Varsity Theater, 4/23/13
Who needs Morrissey?
It was a question that seemed to hang in the air at the Varsity last night as Morrissey's former Smiths bandmate, Johnny Marr, visited town. It seemed apt all the more given Moz's recent string of canceled local shows. (You could also ask, "Who needs Howler?" but more on that later.) There was nothing prima donna about Marr's performance, as he charged through a set that rarely dipped in energy, the sweat streaming down his face as he belted out the words and tore off guitar solos.
But the question was a reminder, too -- perhaps inevitably -- that the sort of brilliance Marr once enjoyed in Morrissey's company is still only possible in fits and starts on his own.
Marr got down to business straight away as he hit the stage Tuesday night, having been given a let's-just-get-this-started introduction by DJ Jake Rudh, who stood giddily at the side of stage for the rest of the show. Dressed sharply in a striped sport coat with buttons pinned to the lapel, his mop of hair still jet-black even on the cusp of turning 50, Marr launched into the driving riff of "The Right Thing Right." No question, he was here to rock.
But before there was much time to get into the groove of things, the Morrissey specter cropped up. On only the second song, Marr played "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before." Here was that familiar Smiths jangle that, even now, is immediately and unmistakably recognizable. For his own part, Marr did a pretty mean Moz impression -- and not just because all Englishmen sound alike -- and with considerably more spirit too. The message seemed clear: Marr didn't need anyone else to put on a good show, and he was damn well going to prove it.
He was right, to the most part, but after the set's ferocious start things began to dip and sag at different intervals. Marr's solo material was certainly distinct enough from the Smiths covers that were thrown in there, but they were also less consistent. The new "Messenger" was a highlight, with its ricocheting riff, as was "Word Starts Attack," with its own wiry, sprung guitar part. But for each of those there was also a song like Electronic's "Forbidden City," which simply came off as flat, too bland and indistinct to really grab you.
It's the same thing that so often seems to affect musicians that make their name as a member of a truly influential group, and then embark on a solo career. All too often, what was once consistent inspiration peters out to mere professionalism. And the same held true with Marr: a consummate professional -- and, to that end, more of a pure musician than Morrissey will ever be -- his show was tight and immaculately played. On several occasions, in fact, his guitar solos were the highlights of the songs, still daring and explosive, full of whammy bar dives and delivered with a full-on pouting expression.
Yet for all that, a song like "Bigmouth Strikes Again" couldn't help but upstage the proceedings. It, more than all the others, just sounded, to borrow a favorite British phrase, massive. It was urgent, it was big, and it was full of attitude -- except that it was attitude that came off effortlessly, with only a careless sneer, rather than the defiant (and very deliberate) middle finger of, say, "Lockdown."