Johnny Marr @ 9:30 Club (4/29/13)
By the time Johnny Marr was my current age, he was already deep in the middle of what could easily be argued was the downside of his career. For over 25 years following the breakup of The Smiths, the now 50-year old Marr has kept an invisibly low profile, even while former bandmate and songwriting partner Morrissey has maintained his popularity thanks to a steady recording output and performance schedule (spurred on by an intense cult following). Sure, he’s guested on a few albums here and there, even signed up to play guitar in some minor bands. But Marr’s actions, or lack thereof, seemed to signal a tacit acceptance of defeat, a realization that he would never again be able to reach the heights he had as the king (in fact, inventor) of hipsterdom. It almost seemed that Marr was working as hard as possible to avoid any bit of acclaim that his prior success might have afforded him, going so far in interviews as to disavow the typical dreams of rock and roll superstardom that The Smiths were perilously close to realizing.
His current album and tour can therefore be viewed either as a valiant attempt to regain musical credibility, and the accompanying popularity, or as a cynical money-grab to finally cash in on his legendary status. Not that it would matter either way to the rabidly devotional fan base who came to worship Marr at the 9:30 Club. But whereas the accolades earned by Morrissey are well-deserved and hard-earned, Marr needed to prove he was still worthy of such esteem.
The show was a solid, yet modest, first step towards reclaiming his place in the rock pantheon. Playing the majority of his new album The Messenger gave Marr the chance to earn respect for himself as a humble solo artist, rather than as an aging rock legend trying to reignite the fire from whatever embers are still clinging to life. Of course, that isn’t ever really possible for Johnny Marr. Every song was enthusiastically received, while the inevitable Smiths covers were fervently welcomed.
Sadly, however, Marr has a fatal flaw: for as fantastic as a guitar player as he is, his insistence on singing for himself nearly cripples the momentum of his performance. His predicament is not without precedent: fellow guitar gods Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton were both memorably averse to singing. Though Clapton came to grow into his voice, Beck ended up abandoning songs with words completely. As I listened to Marr strain to infuse any emotion or character into his singing, I wondered if he wouldn’t be better off taking the latter route. Morrissey’s voice is an (inter)national treasure that neither Marr nor any other singer could possibly hope to imitate. His depressed, self-loathing lyrics are similarly impossible for most mortals to try to properly emulate. So why is Marr trying so hard to prove himself in these arenas? His voice is fine and all, but the strain was clearly showing as he struggled to match the pained lamentations of “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.”
Thankfully, on his solo songs, his guitar playing took over and reminded everyone why they gave a damn about him in the first place. More of a creator of panoramic walls of sound than a technical wizard, Marr spewed the passion that was so lacking from his vocals angrily from his 6-string, reminding the crowd that his half of the partnership was not a sham. Such florid playing finally got the crowd to groove out of excitement rather than nostalgia (though the performance of “London” did both), and even managed to complement, rather than put to shame, his rugged voice. The energy level managed to jump a few more notches during the encore, which the band led off by diving straight into a Clash-ified version of “I Fought the Law,” before inevitably ending, just as Morrissey had, with “How Soon Is Now?” As hard as he tried, Johnny Marr just couldn’t escape his past. At least now he’s trying.
- The Right Thing Right
- Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before (The Smiths song)
- Sun & Moon
- There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (The Smiths song)
- Forbidden City (Electronic song)
- London (The Smiths song)
- The Messenger
- Generate! Generate!
- Say Demesne
- Bigmouth Strikes Again (The Smiths song)
- Word Starts Attack
- New Town Velocity
- I Want the Heartbeat
- I Fought the Law (The Crickets cover)
- Getting Away With It (Electronic song)
- How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths song)