October 21, 2018 at Paradise Rock Club
It’s weird seeing your name on Wikipedia. It’s even weirder seeing it on the Wikipedia page for one of your idols’ new albums. And it’s completely mortifying to be on that page as the one critic who gave said album a negative review. That’s what happened when I reviewed Johnny Marr’s Call the Comet back in June. In summary: I adore the Smiths, but I didn’t adore Marr’s album, so I wrote about it in a newspaper and then a presumably bored Marr fan whipped up a passive-aggressive paragraph about me on Wikipedia. My first thought upon discovering my newfound infamy was, “That explains all the hate emails,” followed by, “I guess I’ll never get to write about Johnny Marr ever again.” Well, all apologies Marr fans, ‘cause apparently there’s a round two: I got to see Marr live at Paradise Rock Club, and I didn’t get thrown out by the belt straps when they saw my name on the press list.
So how was it? Luckily, it wasn’t bad, but I’m not about to retract any previously stated opinions, either. There were arguably more lulls than peaks throughout Marr’s 20-song set, as the room exploded any time he played a Smiths song but then died down whenever he played his solo work. That pattern was apparent from the very start: Marr opened the show with Comet single “The Tracers,” and the crowd cheered like any crowd would for the first song. But then he followed it up with the Smiths classic “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” and that’s when the room of hipster college kids/cool parents lost their minds. Phones were out, people were singing along, hands were in the air, the whole nine yards. Like clockwork, all of the Smiths songs Marr played proved to be the biggest highlights: “The Headmaster’s Ritual” was energizing and menacing, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” was a fantastic encore, and ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’ was a welcome deep cut for die-hard Smith fans. As someone who wasn’t even a thought when the Smiths were gigging around, these moments were particularly fun to see.
Now, if only these songs were in the set, it would’ve easily been a great show. But alas, there was also the solo material to get through. As I knew very well going into it, this part of Marr’s long career is an unfortunately mixed bag. To be fair, I enjoyed solo songs like “Day In Day Out” and “Hi Hello,” which successfully captured the youthful jangle of Marr’s early work. But other cuts like “Hey Angel,” a song that plays like a dad rock band ripping guitar solos for five minutes, or especially “New Dominions” with its weird trance beat-and-drum machine, felt aimless and uninspiring, especially when sandwiched between post-punk classics. It was also during these songs that the crowd definitely became more tacit as they patiently waited for Johnny to break out his best Morrissey impression. The moment that really summed up the night for me was with a woman in the balcony section. At the start of “Walk Into The Sea,” a seven-minute slog off Comet, she let out a big “WOOOO,” then turned to presumably her husband and said, “I don’t think I know this one.” So from what I at least observed, the crowd was there for the same reason I was: the hits.
While the songs were hit-or-miss, there’s no doubt that Marr, like anyone who’s been playing music for decades, knows how to command a stage. Some of the most memorable points of the night came when he was cracking jokes with the crowd, schmoozing with the ladies in the front row during solos, and just being a confident, shit-grinning rock icon. I particularly loved when he finished a song and immediately called out some dude on his phone by saying, “You better be texting the words ‘This is badass,’ ‘cause it was.” Even when select songs didn’t hold up, Marr never once seemed phased or out of his element and knew how to keep the crowd interested.
Even though my thoughts on Marr’s solo work haven’t changed at all post-concert, it was still worth going just to see some of my favorite Smiths tunes played live for the first time. Heaven knows that’s a reunion that’s never going to happen and Morrissey’s becoming harder to love with every passing xenophobic diatribe, so this really is the next best thing.
Photos by Robert Steiner