Gareth D. Davies attends the Great Hall at the Cardiff University Students Union to review a live performance by Johnny Mar of The Smiths.
Johnny Marr needs little introduction after achieving initial fame and recognition for his compositional skills and stunning guitar work with The Smiths, where his unique flowing arpeggio style guitar licks circled intricately around chord structures that bordered on the sublime side of ridiculous. His guitar playing has influenced musicians worldwide, he is omnipresent on top greatest guitarist lists (of all time) globally. He has worked with and been revered by some of the greatest recording artists of this century.
The atmosphere of anticipation from a pulsating hoard of doting fans is elevated as the PA begins to crank up the pre-performance music in the Great Hall at Cardiff Union. Marr enters an enormous roar and promptly hits the opening chord sequence to ‘The Tracers’, from his third solo album Call the Comet. He is immediately in full flow and clearly comfortable in his own skin as a frontman, possessing a rich and tuneful voice and posturing in trademark style. This comes as a surprise to the uninitiated, as he is an artist who has previously confessed to shunning the limelight or the need to be adored on stage with a preference for the sanctuary of the studio. He is, as I remember him in The Smiths, coolness personified and he milks the adoration of the audience which is as eclectic in age as you’re likely to see at a gig. There is euphoria as Marr strikes the opening riff to ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’, the first of several Smith songs, delivering the vocals impeccably.
Call the Comet has received critical acclaim with further recognition coming this year with a lifetime achievement award by GQ for ‘reinventing guitar music for a new generation’. Marr’s set goes on to feature songs from his new album, interspersed with Smiths and Electronic classics. ‘Day In Day out’ is a jangly journey not dissimilar in structure to Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Don’t fear the Reaper’ with a powerful, yet understated guitar solo. It sounds wonderful with Marr extracting every drop of tone from his Fender Jaguar – a distinguishing feature of Marr’s new music when compared to guitar work with The Smiths and other collaborations is the more frequent addition of guitar solos to songs; licks though, are always tasteful, subtle and ooze Johnny Marr-ness.
‘Hi Hello’ is reminiscent of Smiths compositions from yesteryear with trademark rhythmic melody. ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ sees Marr effortlessly pulling off the complex open tuning riff and vocals with aplomb. The crowd go wild and again chant ‘Johnny, Johnny, Johnny fucking Marr’. ‘Walk into the Sea’ is a truly great live song, building in intensity to an atmospheric, cinematic crescendo via keyboard (strings), power chords, chanted lyrics and Marr pulling on the emotions as he boldly states: “Because hope is all I need”, prior to his tuneful plea “Take me down” in a call and response to backing vocals; this is played out over crystalline, chiming, minor chord arpeggios. Sublime and extended versions of Electronic’s composition ‘Getting Away With It’ and The Smiths’ ‘Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me’ follow; both with extended guitar solos rousing the baying crowd further. Previous singles ‘Easy Money’ and present single ‘Spiral Cities’ are woven either side of another outstanding electronic song ‘Get the Message’. The Smiths’ ‘How Soon Is Now’ sends the crowd into rapture to finish the set with Marr’s vocals and mastery of guitar effects shining through. He is backed up by an exceptional band with James Doviak (Guitars and keyboards) and former Haven members Jack Mitchell (drums) and Iwan Gronow (bass).
The band return for a four-song encore, finishing with The Smiths classics ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ where Marr encourages a call and response sing along to the infamous chorus. ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’ is yet another stunning performance of rich vocals and classic Marr guitar lines which he indulges in extending to wonderful effect.
Marr is not in the traditional guitar-slinger mould; his riffs play around chord structures, often unconventional, always with rhythmic percussive patterns of shimmering note picking. Added to that, he is an exceptional live performer. Earlier in the evening, a young couple danced vigorously in front of me to the pre-performance song ‘Once In A Lifetime’ by Talking Heads (another act Marr has collaborated with). There was a profound realisation that if you truly want to experience a genius at work; a true icon in the history of popular music, then you need to see Marr at work in a live setting, if only once in your lifetime.
The official Johnny Marr website has up to date information for his latest concert dates.
Gareth D. Davies writes music-based reviews and content for Wales Arts Review.
(photo credit: Adde Jonze)