It’s Friday night in the Limelight. The perfect arena (well, mid-sized venue) to fulfil nostalgic indie dreams of poetry and jangle, Morrissey and Marr, and make believe that The Severed Alliance relates only to the emasculation of a local political party. Certainly the mass of expectant bobbing and predominately balding male heads in the bar beforehand is greater than usual for these parts. It betrays what sociologists would call the “demographic skew” for the Johnny Marr gig – his second in as many years here.
It takes me a full five minutes to locate my friend amongst the oddly shimmering sea of shining pates, and contribute my own thinning thatch to proceedings. There’s plenty of excitable expectant babble about the crowd that he’s going to play ‘Still Ill’, and ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’, but not so much about whether ‘The Messenger’ or ‘Easy Money’ will feature (‘Big Mouth’ and ‘Money’ as it turns out). And that’s the thing really; the mild tension of the evening. The resolutely forward-looking Marr playing for a – not backwards looking audience exactly – but one clearly more burdened with the great man’s legacy than he ever seems to be.
But as everybody who loves The Smiths also knows, whatever he’s playing, Johnny Marr plays the hell out of it.
When he eventually swaggers on stage, like a cooler, sharper and – yes – younger Ronnie Wood, all talk of possible set-list permutations is silenced with the blasting chords of ‘Playland’. Accompanied by what appears to be the Muppet Babies version of Ocean Colour Scene, the title track from his newest album whips up a whirling sonic storm that galvanises the crowd into affirmative reaction. “It’s him!” involuntarily cries somebody nearby. I loudly and equally involuntarily agree, that it is indeed “him”. On stage, Marr is pouting, preening and throwing more windmill shapes than you could tilt a lance at.
It must be said, like rather a lot of his exclusively solo stuff, ‘Playland’ is all mad urgency and laudable raw power, but somewhat light on what one might limply call “song-craft”. It doesn’t really matter here, he’s having the time of his life on stage, and we have no choice but to distortedly mirror, weaving and shuffling according to retained muscle memories from a hundred indie disco nights in the ’90s.
Marr is clearly enjoying this a lot more than his last gig here, about a year and a half before on a wet Wednesday night, when the erstwhile Smith journeyman guitar legend (tm Mojo Magazine) had to actually cajole the front lines of the audience to move closer, or at least just move.
Then ‘Panic’ erupts, and all bets, as they say, are off.
During ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ – the amphetamine-fuelled mega-jangling middle eight provokes howls of delight – at least from me, as the alarming giant poppy-garland-type thing hanging from Marr’s snake-hip bobbles about in time to his lightning finger-work – if that’s what it’s called.
During the pleasantly chugging solo single ‘Upstarts’, the band have never looked modder, and the crowd gamely frugs along in time. Lithe and ludicrously youthful (the one concession to the ageing process being the Just for Men blue-black sheen on his immaculate barnet), Johnny throws shapes and exudes more front than a continental shelf when presenting “the new stuff”, treating ‘There is a Light’ with exactly the same care, swagger and commitment as ‘Upstarts’.
The slow noodling slightly misleading intro that introduces Electronic’s second finest 3 minutes ‘Getting Away With It’ has my friend complaining that he’s playing too many new ones, as I tut disapprovingly, when he starts the familiar vocal, I wobble smug and triumphant. The extended guitar coda is musical, melodic with not an ounce of indulgence, reminding all that Johnny Marr is the guitarist, and not the singer of a generation.
My mate gets his own back when I chastise him for not recognising the opening riff to ‘Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before’. It soon turns out to be the similarly brutish intro to ‘Generate Generate!’ from his debut solo album, causing me much fanbarrassment.
‘The Headmaster Ritual’ is thrilling, ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’ is as surprising and delightful as finding a twenty quid note in an old coat. Marr’s Morrissey impersonation is passable throughout, his playing sublime. For those who gripe about him taking on the hallowed Smith’s legacy, it’s important to remember that it is a shared legacy. And frankly, the wobbly Las Vegas tribute act antics of the current incarnation of Morrissey live is a far less palatable prospect than the light, infectious, poptastic Marr versions.
He encores with the lovely solo highlight ‘New Town Velocity’, a sprightly version of The Primitive’s ‘Crash’ with son Nile (wonder who he’s named after?) and a heart-stopping, shuddering juggernaut that is ‘How Soon is Now’. Marr throws a final few ironic guitar hero shapes as the final blast of feedback dissipates in our ears, bids us a happy Friday and exits, stage right.
We’re still reeling moments later. It’s partly the booze of course, and something to do with the six whole Smiths songs. But it’s mostly the sheer joyous verve of an evening in the company of Johnny Marr, a man who’s widened memory lane into a more illuminating thoroughfare.
“The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return,” explained egg-head novelist Milan Kundera in Ignorance – his treatise on memory and homecoming. There’s no such indulgent pain here tonight. No matter what we thought we came for, what we were given was the here and now of a vital rock and roll musician, who just happens to have a rather astounding back catalogue up his sleeve.
Johnny Marr photographed for State by Kieran Frost.