While his former songwriting partner in The Smiths has continued to grab most of the headlines—most recently for spouting off like an old twat—Johnny Marr has quietly put out some of the best music of his career. Indeed, the records Marr has put out under his own name have outshined anything his bigmouthed ex-bandmate has done in the past decade. The third of those, Call the Comet is due in less than two weeks, and to mark the occasion, Marr was Stateside last week to play a handful of shows at slightly smaller clubs than the ones he’ll be visiting when he does a proper tour in the fall.
In New York, the spot chosen was the Gramercy Theater, a venue that purportedly holds only 500 people. With every one of those spots taken, Marr greeted the capacity crowd with “The Tracers,” the first song he unveiled in advance of the new album. While the track is led by a whining synthline instead of Marr’s iconic guitar playing, it was still a stirring beginning to the show. However, the excitement soon skyrocketed with the initial riffs from “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” the first of a handful of Smiths songs that Marr would play throughout the night. Marr is more than a capable singer and his renditions never come off as lacking in anyway. Sure, Morrissey is still capable of putting on a great show, but his delivery has become schmaltzy, while Marr, on the other hand, conveys an aesthetic more in keeping with the original recordings when he delves into the Smiths songbook.
But as much as a portion of his audience may pine to hear those golden gems, Marr’s solo material is every bit as strong. Indeed, the two and soon to be three albums he’s put out in recent years makes one wonder why he wasted all that time in a supporting role with The Pretenders, The The, and Modest Mouse, among others, and why wasn’t that Healers record any better. One more collaborative excursion, though, was his partnership with New Order’s Bernard Sumner, Electronic, which was represented by “Getting Away With It,” which again didn’t lack for the guitarist singing it. Indeed, his rendition conveyed the mix of pop bliss and melancholy that characterized the original. Nevertheless, it was more recent material, like new single “Hi Hello,” in particular that really took the cake. Marr only faltered when getting a bit heavy handed and overly political (not that there’s anything wrong with getting political) on “Bug.”
Nonetheless, the highlight was still from The Smiths songbook, the rarely played “Last Night I Dreamt” from The Smiths’ swansong, Strangeways Here We Come. It was a treat to hear its weighty paean to loneliness. What I wouldn’t do to hear a few more deep cuts like that one, instead the upteenth run through “How Soon Is Now” that began Johnny’s encore. That encore also included a couple solo cuts: “New Town Velocity” and “Rise” from the new record. Finally, I can think of worse ways to end a set than “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby.” Its buoyant refrains sent the show out on a achingly high note. Marr continues to amaze me everytime I’ve seen him (which has been several occasions now). He’s managed to pull off the neat trick of creating new material every bit as strong as his legacy, and I don’t see any reason why that trend won’t continue. Live, he and his top-notch band, deliver that cache with aplomb, conveying the material with all the nuances that has made Marr’s work so cherished.