Following the release of his new album Playland and the end of his 13 date UK tour we are lucky enough to have Grant Halliday to guest review Johnny Marr’s Glasgow leg for us. Is the former Smiths legend back on top form or has his light gone out? Read on to find out.
British indie legend Johnny Marr returned to Glasgow last Monday night to showcase songs from his new top-ten album Playland, alongside some familiar old favourites. This latest round of touring caps a frenetic few years of activity for the former Smiths guitarist, who released and toured his début solo album The Messenger last year, as well as reuniting with Hans Zimmer to soundtrack The Amazing Spider-Man 2 following their collaboration on 2010’s Inception.
Despite Marr’s infectious enthusiasm for his new material, it is hard not to shake the impression that a lot of people in attendance came to hear the now-ubiquitous riches of the Morrissey & Marr songbook. In that respect Marr didn’t disappoint, dispatching no fewer than seven Smiths classics including ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, ‘Panic’ and ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’, for my money the highlight of the evening. Certainly these songs get the best reaction from the crowd, and Marr’s band, featuring Doviak on guitar and keyboard, Iwan Gronow on bass and Jack Mitchell on drums, make a good fist of these songs. It’s easy to see following a career of playing with charismatic singers like Morrissey and Isaac Brock that Marr isn’t a natural singer, but he does a decent enough job without ever reaching the heights of his former band-mates.
As for the new material from Playland and The Messenger that comprises the majority of the set, it feels like a bit of a mixed bag. Marr’s most recent song-writing has favoured a short and snappy guitar pop style; on his début solo album songs like ‘The Messenger’ and ‘The Crack Up’ feature the memorable riffs that Marr’s fans will have become accustomed to even if the songs themselves weren’t always so memorable. On Playland the basic formula is left intact although by the sound of the title track and ‘Boys Get Straight It’ seems like writing on the road during the last tour has led to a more energetic and punkier set of tunes. It’s hard to imagine these albums standing the test of time in the same way that The Queen Is Dead or Meat Is Murder have, the impression being that writing these songs has given Marr something to play at gigs. If taken on that basis alone then there is plenty to enjoy as these songs are often catchy and energetic, and showcase how tight this group of musicians are on stage.
For me the best song of this recent run has been The Messenger’s ‘New Town Velocity’, a song that sees Marr looking back lyrically and stylistically, as he looks back on the point where he left school and decided to eschew Manchester’s traditional industries in favour of a career in music, set to music that instantly recalls Marr’s Smiths heyday, strummed acoustic guitars underpin a melodic lead guitar. If anything it shows that despite Marr spending years trying to outrun the legacy of The Smiths with a host of different bands and projects, he’s at his best when he’s playing to his strengths, which he had ample opportunities to do in The Smiths.
On recent tours Marr has taken to including a cover in his set: on The Messenger tour it was The Crickets’ ‘I Fought the Law’, and this time he decides on Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’. While it’s a fun song to hear in a live setting, it seems unnecessary considering many of his collaborations with the likes of The Cribs, Modest Mouse and Talking Heads are left unrepresented in the setlist, and Marr arguably remains too faithful to of one of Iggy Pop’s most obvious hits, rather than attempting to make the song his own. Afterwards he finishes the night with one of the Smiths most enduring songs ‘How Soon is Now’ before leaving the stage to rapturous applause. The crowd, a healthy mix of young and old, have obviously relished an opportunity to see one of Britain’s finest guitarist in the flesh and he doesn’t disappoint.