Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Johnny Marr concert review: Anaheim, Calif.

photo: Josh Gardner
On Sunday night, the “Game of Thrones” and “American Idol” finales kept countless people around America glued to their screens. But in Orange County, Calif., a couple thousand music fans at the House of Blues were transfixed by a different phenomenon: Eighties alternative rock guitar god Johnny Marr.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the Manchester, England native helped define that decade’s sound during his short, but influential tenure with The Smiths. After their dissolution, Marr either recorded or served as tour guitarist for the Pretenders, The The, Bryan Ferry, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Electronic, Talking Heads, Modest Mouse, The Cribs and others.

Marr put out The Messenger, the first solo album under his own name, in 2013. Playland followed a year later. Last summer, Call the Comet arrived. The intriguing and futuristic latter release stands tallest among the three (all reached the UK chart top 10). Not quite a concept album, Comet contains what Marr calls his own magic realism and revolves around an alternative society where the characters are searching for a new idealism. A few months ago, the artist unveiled a new synth-laden single, “Armatopia,” which was influenced by ecology and current state of society.

The sold-out Anaheim show featured several selections off Comet, a generous helping of Smiths material, Electronic hits and older solo songs. Marr and the three-piece band - including co-producer and former Johnny Marr + the Healers member James Doviak - opened their excellent 20-song, 105-minute set with an ominous-sounding “The Tracers.” Marr immediately walked to the stage edge and prominently displayed some dexterous fretwork (there would be plenty more examples later).

Longtime enthusiasts quickly got boisterous and sang along loudly when Marr launched into some chiming strains on the first Smiths number of the night, “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” He bent down while playing and even humorously inserted himself into the original lyric “now I know how Joan of Arc felt” to a rousing response. While possessing a lower vocal timbre than Morrissey, the singer/guitarist still did an adept job at handling the lead role during old Smiths tunes.

photo: Josh Gardner
A pulsating “Armatopia” was totally infectious as Marr sang about kissing off history and dancing “to the sound of time running out.” He gestured dramatically while doing “Day In, Day Out”; the hypnotic synth sound and ringing guitar solo were reminiscent of The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come (long cited as a favorite by Marr and this writer). The foreboding drum machine-driven “New Dominions,” inspired by pioneering English industrial acts like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, was delivered in riveting fashion. Mixing a slow nuanced buildup with a powerful crescendo, the alluring, nearly six-minute-long “Walk Into the Sea” proved to be another highlight.

“This is what the weekends are like in Manchester,” said Marr, introducing Electronic’s “Getting Away with It.” The fresh rhythmic and melodic revamp on the 1990 hit worked wonders. Seemingly touching upon the Comet theme (but also possibly joking around) onstage, Marr described “Hey Angel” as being “about my friends on the astral plane.” Marr was mischievous before “Getting Away with It.” After asking if anyone had any requests and the expected audience yells, he mentioned that they had done a Steve Miller Band cover in the past. That tune wasn’t touched, but Marr sure had fun on the Electronic hit single’s free-flowing arrangement. One concertgoer near me suddenly turned to his friend and said, “that was better than the record.”

Marr projected plenty of rock swagger and was a very expressive vocalist throughout the evening. The main set concluded with the always exciting Smiths epic “How Soon is Now?” No offense to Morrissey’s longtime axe man Boz Boorer, but there’s something extra special about seeing the original guitarist recreate what many consider to be his studio masterpiece in concert.

Come encore time, Marr and the musicians did a perfectly credible take on Depeche Mode’s “I Feel You” (a Record Store Day 2015 release), the wonderful “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” (complete with a loud audience singalong and two stage crashers) and jaunty “You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet, Baby.”

Johnny Marr ends his North American tour for Call the Comet tonight at John Anson Ford Theater in Los Angeles. All photos by Josh Gardner taken at House of Blues Anaheim courtesy HOB Entertainment Inc.

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