When it comes to live shows, the “Perfect Set List” is like a unicorn vaulting over a rainbow. By definition, it does not exist.
Granted, a fledgling act with a single record under its belt has only one option – play their ten extant songs, plus whatever’s cooking on their next release. But any band with history and a respectable catalog faces a conundrum. Assume they have ten or more well-known chart hits in their repertoire, plus 20 other cherished songs the crowd would love to hear. A two-hour show thus becomes a game of Tetris, struggling to cram everything in before the curtain falls. Should they stick with the hits, thereby pleasing the majority of fans? Or excavate their deeper tracks, thrilling serious devotees but abandoning casual listeners out to dry?
Of course, certain exceptions inevitably prove the rule. Bands like Yes or Rush toured for decades, seeing the same faces year after year, in town after town. So they could afford to be more daring with their set lists. During their late 1990s ‘Long Songs’ tour, Yes dredged the full 22-minute version of “Ritual / Nous Sommes du Soleil” out of mothballs and absolutely brought the phreaking house down. Talk about deep cuts: This was Yes’ first time playing “Ritual” in its entirety in 25 years, and it remains one of the most outstanding live performances this reviewer has ever witnessed. Meanwhile, after a lifetime of concert experiences, the most perfectly-calibrated ‘majoritarian’ set list in memory would have to be Journey’s – every last hit played, with precisely zero fat.
Ultimately, geography also plays a role, even in today’s hyper-connected world. For those of us Stateside, this evening might be our one and only chance to catch Morrissey or any member of the Smiths live. Therefore, playing “Suedehead” or “Girlfriend in a Coma” would seem a no-brainer.
Not tonight, apparently.
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Start with the good: Morrissey’s voice sounded fantastic. Not ‘good for his age’ (he turned 63 in May), but nigh on stunning, his adolescent croon having lost not an ounce of its underrated range. That is no small feat: Too many nostalgic acts hit the road way past their prime, charging a fortune to sound like a choking rooster. Aged vocal cords can rarely withstand the strain of nightly performances, leading to erratic quality at best. Over the past 15 years, Rod Stewart, Roger Daltrey, and David Lee Roth have all fallen prey to this affliction on occasion. It’s especially heartbreaking in Roth’s case, as anyone who’s tried belting “Dance the Night Away” on a karaoke stage will tell you. As for Morrissey’s backing band, they were tight, very talented, and younger than many of the songs they were playing. Ironic, but also par for the course.
Along those lines, another source of mirth during these venerable gatherings is the (ahem) overall age of the audience. Was Morrissey’s audience old? Not so much, at least compared to some 1970s nostalgia acts. Earth Wind and Fire, Steely Dan, Barry Manilow, and especially Donny and Marie boasted a much older demographic, with far fewer kids in tow. (For the geezer record, Manilow put on the best damn show of the whole bunch. Go ahead, sue me.) Plenty of 50-something Gen-Xers did lug their teenage kids along – logical, considering my car-bound teens beg to hear the Smiths rather than whatever underground dreck I’m reviewing for PopMatters that week.
Now, to the concert itself. Tee time was scheduled at 8:30 pm, which for an antiquated, jet-lagged East Coaster already poses a challenge. Is something wrong with 7:30? Elderly Matlock fans want to know. Then, when half past eight finally rolled around, the onstage screen came alive with classic music videos for 30 minutes. What? Nothing against T. Rex, New York Dolls, or the Sex Pistols. But the clock struck 9:00 pm Pacific – midnight Eastern – with nary a Smith in sight.
At last, Morrissey took the stage. He kicked off with “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, a sensible, crowd-pleasing opener, followed by “Our Frank” and a rendition of “Billy Budd” good enough to justify disinterring 1994’s Vauxhall and I off the closet shelf. So far, so good, and the bouncing audience had yet to sit down.
Then the trouble began. 2020’s “Knockabout World” is serviceable as recent releases go, and no fan can begrudge a beloved musician playing some of his newer material. But when followed up with the brief yet seemingly interminable “Black Cloud” from 2009’s Years of Refusal, the show hit its first real snag. We were only five songs in, yet shouts of “PLAY MORE SMITHS!” began ringing out. Unfortunately, a commonly shared sentiment.
Without warning, like a hero rescuing his damsel in distress, came the show’s best moment. It’s said that anyone hearing 1988’s elegiac “Everyday Is Like Sunday” instantly and irrevocably falls in love with it, this reviewer included. Yet somehow, Morrissey improved the song, if not wholly reinvented it, by emphasizing his lead guitarist instead of the studio version’s admittedly gorgeous strings. Long-accustomed sublime beauty suddenly became in-your-face power, and the impact was electrifying.
Then, blah. Without harping on every song choice, “Never Had No One Ever” is a perfect dispiriting example. Those of us who wore out 1986’s The Queen is Dead didn’t exactly skip over “No One Ever”, but it was superior tracks such as “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, “Cemetry Gates”, and especially “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” that kept us coming back. Why on earth select “No One Ever” above these indisputable classics? Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr has been touring Britain with his son Nile (whose sparkling Covid release Are You Happy Now? may have saved 2020 single-handed). The Marrs have been closing their shows with “There Is a Light”, and the crowd goes totally bananas – not without reason. Moral of the story? Moping inside your tenth-grade bedroom is fine, perhaps even encouraged. But not in public, and especially not on stage.
Soon afterward, yet another complication arose. Morrissey is one of those artists whose fans simply feel compelled to jump up on the pulpit and hug. Sure, the first time was kinda cute. But by the 15th or 20th hug, the crowd groaned in frustration. For goodness sake, let the man play! Meanwhile, where was security? Back in the day, this reviewer once watched a Godzilla-sized bouncer tear a jumbo beach ball in half with his teeth. Rest assured that whatever psychedelics the mob happened to ingest on that particular evening, nobody wanted to be that beach ball. Ever.
Besides, no one here is anti-hug; when Bono embraced Kal Khalique during U2’s July 1985 performance at Live Aid, an entire planet broke down in tears. Yet, in this security-conscious day and age, one naturally fears for our celebrities’ safety. Morrissey soon became frustrated by the entire affair, and one cannot blame him. Wouldn’t you be after your 20th hug from a total stranger?
There was one last Smiths highlight on deck to enjoy. Fan-favorite encore “How Soon Is Now” had a low bar to clear, but soar it did, with a cool syncopated lightning storm from above. Then the former Smiths heartthrob vanished, having played for barely 75 minutes. Back in the early 1980s, the Cars’ reputation was sullied by microscopic 45-minute shows and a crushing indifference to loyal supporters. Given tonight’s overabundance of whimsy, not to mention prices north of $120, even an iconoclast like Morrissey risks alienating his audience.
To be fair, these ‘set-list’ vs. ‘hit-list’ arguments can go both ways. Sing too many popular songs in concert, and the peanut gallery labels you a sellout; dust off esoteric Track Eight from your 40-year-old debut LP, and casual fans will invariably complain.
But hearing “Suedehead” sure would’ve been nice.