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“I wonder what Morrissey’s up to”, my friend said during the most recent Chicago performance by the singer’s former songwriting partner, Johnny Marr. “Oh, he does these short tours every now and then where the tickets are something like $40 and he plays for 25 minutes and pisses everybody off,” I replied.
One thing you can say for Johnny Marr—at least he gives you your money’s worth. Of course, he and the Healers, his current band and the first he’s fronted since the 1987 demise of his and Morrissey’s legendary group the Smiths, only have one album’s worth of material to perform, so he couldn’t offer much in the way of surprises. In fact, with the exception of one song that was dropped altogether, the set list matched the one Marr was performing as far back as January. No wonder, then, that Marr and bandmates Alonza Bevan (ex-Kula Shaker, bass) and son-of-Ringo Zak Starkey (drums) put on a competent but somewhat perfunctory performance during their second visit to Chicago, thankfully perking up during the second half.
After a decent but samey performance by openers Palo Alto and a cheesy “Thanks for supporting live music!” intro from a local radio personality, a gum-chewing Marr took the stage silently and with little fanfare. With shaggy hair and clad in black pants and a jacket that he soon shed to reveal a somewhat psychedelic polyester shirt, Marr certainly looked the part of a British rock god, even if he didn’t act like one, breezing through the first few numbers without comment. Marr warmed up as the set went on, though, peppering the between-song intervals with polite and appreciative comments, such as when he said of the venue, “This is a nice place. This is one of the nicest places I’ve been.”
The trio, joined by a second guitarist/sometime keyboardist, breezed through most of the songs from its Boomslang CD, including “Caught Up” and “Down on the Corner”, Oasis-like guitar rockers that got a rise from the audience. Mercifully, not everyone in the crowd was there simply to rehash the past with one of the Smiths, and several fans acknowledged that they knew and loved Marr’s new songs by singing along and dancing spastically. There were a couple of surprises in the form of a chiming, Smiths-like cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, and an unreleased original rocker called “All Out Attack” that was omitted from Boomslang although it is better than some of the tracks that made the cut.
In the live setting, Marr’s voice often sounded richer than it does on Boomslang, and it was endearing to hear one of the most influential musicians of recent years profess his “luv” of his red Rickenbacker 370, the only guitar he used during the performance. Marr is handling his first stint as frontman admirably, but the downside of his fronting the band is that he can’t concentrate on his guitar work. The additional guitarist sometimes took on the leads, freeing Marr’s hands during “You Are the Magic” for a weird dance in which he put his arms straight out in front of him and swayed hypnotically. The second player’s contribution also allowed Marr to play harmonica and do some rock star preening during “Need It”. Given the complexity of Marr’s typical guitar work, it probably isn’t possible for him to play all the parts himself in a live setting, but judging from the crowd’s response to Marr’s solo on “Something to Shout About”, it seemed like they really wanted to hear Johnny Marr play guitar—and that seems like a no-brainer.