Monday, April 29th, 2013
Johnny Marr at The Phoenix in Toronto
Frank YangFor the better part of the past 20 years, I’ve kept with me a copy of the January, 1990 issue of Guitar Player, the cover of which features a too-cool black-and-white photo of Johnny Marr under the title of “Anti-Guitar Hero”. It’s the image and epithet that I think of first when I think of Marr, along with the phrase “consummate sideman”, who in addition to being the true genius behind The Smiths, has lent his guitar and songwriting skills to The Pretenders, The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse, and The Cribs to name just his official affiliations – his list of guest appearances runs much longer and his overall CV is beyond reproach.
So The Messenger, this year’s solo debut under his own name – despite the fact that no one bought 2003’s Boomslang, credited to Marr and The Healers, because it was a new Zak Starkey record – really didn’t have to prove anything, except maybe that it was better than Boomslang. And it is by a fair distance. Marr is a capable singer – not as distinctive a personality as his past collaborators, but strong enough to carry a tune, particularly when backed with his characteristically brilliant guitarwork, which has found an ideal balance between his jangly past and the heavier, riffier sounds of his more recent work. But the best thing about The Messenger is that it’s given Marr an excuse to stage a full North American tour – not such the logistical feat since he’s lived in Portland the last few years – and sell out The Phoenix on Saturday night. And while I’d technically seen Marr in 2008 as part of Modest Mouse and again in January 2011 circa his tenure in The Cribs, there was still a special feeling about this one, what with it being his first visit as Johnny Marr and doing explicitly Johnny Marr things.
Marr took the stage sharply-dressed and looking much younger than his 49 years – how is he so spry when barely-older Morrissey is literally falling apart? – as he led a new version of The Healers through Messenger opener “The Right Thing Right”, but immediately followed it, as if to answer the unspoken question from those who’d not bothered to look at set lists from this tour, with “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”. Yes indeed, The Smiths songbook was open – and Electronic as well, as “Forbidden City” a few songs in would signal – and damned if Marr didn’t sound great singing it.
His relatively anonymous vocals were a great advantage here as he didn’t try to ape the Moz’s (and Bernard Sumner’s) delivery but was still able to sound like he’d been singing these songs all his life. And while I’ve never seen Morrissey live, I’m going to bet that his backing band can’t close to playing Marr’s guitar parts – as much a part of the Smiths magic as anything Morrissey contributed – as well as the man himself. Indeed, all of the Smiths songs in the set sounded better than anyone could have hoped, with Marr injecting each of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, and “The Queen Is Dead” with a some serious rock adrenaline and making them feel more alive than they have in nigh on 30 years.
And for a man who is arguably one of the architects of modern guitar pop, Marr was all about the rock. Anti-guitar hero he might be, but he had some choice guitar hero moves, and while he was friendly and chatty from the stage, he still carried himself like a bona fide rock star. The pace of the set didn’t slow one iota until almost an hour into the set with the relatively more moderately-paced “Say Demense”. Of course, that went straight back into a ripping “Bigmouth” so it barely counted as a lull.
When he returned for the encore, Marr had traded his moddish tweed jacket and button-down shirt for a bright red “Johnny Fucking Marr” t-shirt, and though it’s basically unwearable in public, I’m pretty sure he sold at least a couple dozen of them right then and there. He then called local boy Kevin Drew to the stage, citing Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People as one of his inspirations for re-engaging with popular music some years ago, and traded vocals with him on a cover of “I Fought The Law”. It was then back into the archives for a reading of Electronic’s “Getting Away With It” and, finally – brilliantly – “How Soon Is Now”. For nigh on 90 minutes, Johnny Marr affirmed why he’s a legend and while with all his projects, he’s never really gone away, how amazing it is to have him back, simultaneously and fully embracing both his past and future.
Photos: Johnny Marr @ The Phoenix – April 27, 2013
Video: Johnny Marr – “Upstarts”
Video: Johnny Marr – “The Messenger”
Video: Johnny Marr & The Healers – “Down On The Corner”
Video: Johnny Marr & The Healers – “Last Ride”
Video: Electronic – “Late At Night”
Video: Electronic – “Vivid”
Video: Electronic – “For You”
Video: Electronic – “Forbidden City”
Video: Electronic – “Feel Every Beat”
Video: Electronic – “Get The Message”
Video: The Smiths – “Ask” (live)
Video: The Smiths – “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”
Video: The Smiths – “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”
Video: The Smiths – “Girlfriend In A Coma”
Video: The Smiths – “Sheila Take A Bow”
Video: The Smiths – “Shoplifters Of The World Unite”
Video: The Smiths – “Ask”
Video: The Smiths – “Panic”
Video: The Smiths – “The Queen Is Dead”
Video: The Smiths – “The Boy With A Thorn In His Side”
Video: The Smiths – “How Soon Is Now”
With their debut album finally out in North America this week, Rolling Stone has a stream of Daughter’s If You Leave. And just because, you can stream their smouldering cover of the new Daft Punk single, recorded for BBC. Daughter are at The Great Hall on May 7.
The xx are streaming their contribution to the soundtrack of The Great Gatsby. The soundtrack album is out May 7, the film on May 10, and they play Downsview Park on June 6.
Stream: The xx – “Together”
The Guardian and Contact Music have interviews with Laura Marling about her forthcoming album Once I Was An Eagle, out May 28, while Noisey presents a short film/performance video by Marling entitled “When Brave Bird Saved”.
MySpace has an interview with Jessie Ware, who details her favourite things about London for The London Evening Standard and who has just put up a stream of a Martika cover – no, not of “Toy Soldiers” – just because.
Atoms For Peace have made a new, non-album track available to stream.
Stream: Atoms For Peace – “Magic Beanz”