NOTE: This story originally appeared earlier via CoolDad Music
I think seeing Johnny Marr and Morrissey separately, within a few months of each other is instructive. Morrissey is a showman: satin shirt or no shirt, fans rushing the stage to hug and kiss him, his voice, his words, his pompadour. Johnny Marr is a rock star. He connects with his audience, but he also maintains a distance typical for rock stars of a certain stature. But as huge a part as Morrissey’s words and persona play in the overall feeling of The Smiths, for me it always comes down to the sound of Johnny Marr’s guitar.
Last night Johnny Marr brought his guitar — now it’s a Fender Jaguar instead of the Rickenbacker he famously played with The Smiths — and an excellent backing band to Irving Plaza where he reeled off tunes from his first-ever solo record, from his days with Bernard Sumner in Electronic, and from The Smiths.
I took the train into the city this time, figuring that a show at a place like Irving Plaza would end early enough that I’d be able to catch a train home at a reasonable time. I arrived a song or two into opener Alamar’s set. Meredith Sheldon and Jen Turner were impressive, Sheldon’s beautiful voice filling the room and actually, at times, diverting some of the already large crowd’s attention away from their drinks and their smartphones.
Irving Plaza is kind of a mini Terminal 5 with the balcony section reserved for VIPs. I squished myself as close to the stage as I could, but I didn’t make it very far. The show was totally sold out and space was at a premium.
Johnny Marr and his band took the stage at around 9:15 and launched into “Right Thing Right,” the opening track from Marr’s The Messenger. From the start, wearing a plaid blazer, Marr mugged and grimaced in true guitar hero fashion. He stepped from behind the mic several times and held his guitar out over the heads of those in the front as he strummed chords or picked out a solo. When the opening strains of “Stop Me If You Think…” began, the crowd went crazy. Marr’s vocals were quite good, and his guitar is the sound of The Smiths.
The Smiths’ songs, including “London” and “Big Mouth Strikes Again,” got the biggest responses. Following “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” Marr commented, giving us his best Brit-poppy snark, “That was a good one! But, damn. I always forget to remind you to get your phones out for that one. Don’t worry. I’ll let you know before we play the Oasis song.”
No Oasis song was forthcoming, obviously, but we did get a couple of Electronic songs: “Forbidden City” and, as part of the encore, “Getting Away With It.” And Marr’s new material slotted in well with the classics. Johnny Marr is still Johnny Marr, and the new songs feature most of his old tricks.
The main set closed with The Messenger‘s “I Want The Heartbeat.” Marr returned for the encore wearing a red “Johnny Fuckin Marr” t-shirt and did a Clash-like rendition of “I Fought the Law.” The unmistakable, tremolo’d riff of “How Soon Is Now?” signaled the final song of the evening.
I instantly thought back to the same moment at Morrissey’s show in Red Bank. Both crowds exploded at the moment of recognition. Both versions of the song were excellent. I’d always thought that it was Morrissey’s delivery that made the song. I was wrong.
In a documentary called The Story of the Guitar, Johnny Marr discusses how he came to his distinctive guitar style. “Yeah, it’s all kinda ringy and melodic, and…. There’s a lot of emotion in there, I think. So I …I play that way cause that’s how I feel.” That simple — and it is simple — opening riff to “How Soon Is Now?” is meant to be played by Johnny Marr. I saw and heard him do it last night, and while those chords were pulsing through Irving Plaza; it didn’t matter at all who was singing.