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Johnny Marr At Music Hall Of Williamsburg, Friday May 3rd, 2013, Reviewed

For the first song of the encore, two songs before Andy Yorke joined him on stage, Johnny Marr performed a footstomping cover of the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought The Law”. It was a look back at the earliest beginnings of Johnny’s career informed not by the American popstar murdered by the Mafia but by the Saint of Punk, genetically destroyed at the age of 50.

Except for the simplicity of the guitar parts, the very next song was an extended gem of guitar strum and arpeggios, the cover was the essence of Marr solo in 2013. While former Smith Morrissey has built a career on two parts Anthony Newley – one part Dusty Springfield, Marr has made his both hand playing virtuosity in pursuit of rock and roll, his reason for greatness as a member of English pop bands for two decades.

But, since this is Marr’s, in support of his first solo album The Messenger, on his first tour since The Smiths broke up in 1987, what you want to know is how does he compare to Morrissey. As a singer he is not on Morrissey’s level and the Smiths covers suffer
accordingly, as a bandleader he is way too unassuming and there was nothing like the adoration you see at a Moz gig. Also, he dresses like your Granddad in New Wavey tight too short jacket and dyed jet black hair. BUT, his guitar playing is what we came fom and whenever he decided to perform an extended jam with his band of talented young lads, comparisons to Morrissey became irrelevant. The gobsmacking sight of Smiths bassist Andy Rourke on stage with his childhood friend performing a dynamic and very alive “How Soon Is Now” made points of reference pointless in a Smithdom ecstasy.

The set started off near perfect  The first six songs were so good I thought it was going to be the show of the year. Three tracks, including the best and second best, off his debut album, two Smiths sure shots and Electronic’s finest moment. “Sun & Moon”, indifferent on record, made your ears purr with the tremolous vibrations: Marrs left hand performs semi windmills like a sedated Pete Townshend and his left hand flutters over the strings like a birds flapping wings. But the rest of the set is handcuffed by pushing an album which, despite its many gifts, is not really worth going that deeply into. The album is in serious service and at the behest of his guitar playing without the songs or the singing to sell it on other merits. Live, a synthesizer added for shading in one song stands out from the heavy guitar sound, but the heavy, actually light and mercurial guitar sounds stands out for itself.

The Smiths seem a little like Joy Division, three yobs and a poet and the problem with such a silly statement is the three yobs claim, including Marr, certainly a brilliant man, is it appears to be true. Marr wasn’t Morrissey and wasn’t the Smiths, he wasn’t as good. And while I admired the  90 minute set more than I admired The Messenger, it had the feel of a set treading water and bailing itself out without the wherewithal, maybe I mean the chops, to really sell itself. It was like there was a hole in the center. It was like the apostles without Jesus. As my nephew Damon Morton noted, “Johnny Marr is great at being Johnny Marr, less so at being Morrissey”.

So what happens when ordinary songs are played very well? A potentially great concert becomes a very good concerts and for every “New Town Velocity” there is a “World Starts Attack” and a “Generate Generate” -perfectly executed nothing much songs. The decision to end the set with three new songs was pretty lousy and the songs were not strong enough, but the break on “World Starts Attack” is sthe sound of feathers beating a snowstorm hooked up to a guitar and unlike anyone else at all, they seem to have a second life. Really remarkable.

The other problem is that while Marr is a very charming MC for the proceedings, he is not a frontman (that’s probably why it took him decades to decide to take center stage) and an unassuming frontman is like a celibate hooker, it isn’t getting the job done. Now, the guitar playing is so monstrously great, so melodic and tonally swayful, how much can you care? Well, you can care enough. Imagine if “Say Demesme” was an actual good song? It is Marr’s best solo of the night but the song is a horrorshow.

Morrissey and Marr (and Rourke and Mike Joyce) need each other. The Smiths are better together than alone. Marr’s solo album and set just proves it. But you take what you can get and it was a pleasure to hear him play.

Grade: B+

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