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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Live: Johnny Marr is a rock star without ego

Posted by on Wed, Nov 20, 2013 at 10:37 AM

click to enlarge Still cool: Johnny Marr - PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROTHERS UK
  • Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers UK
  • Still cool: Johnny Marr
Based on various unofficial barometers, including a post on this very website recalling that Johnny Marr’s most recent local appearance was sparsely attended, I was ready to conclude that the Triangle doesn’t have much affection for the former Smiths guitarist whose tour T-shirts read “JOHNNY FUCKIN’ MARR.” My fears were laid to rest, though, Tuesday night at a nearly sold-out Cat’s Cradle, where Marr and his crack three-piece band were met with rapture.

While Marr is roughly the age of many of those in the audience, he was none the worse for wear. Looking every bit the ageless rock ’n’ roll peacock in an elegantly cut turquoise jacket, he delivered a committed, loose, totally professional show. Giving flesh to the expression “commands the stage,” Marr was pretty much unignorable. His posture—straight back, tight shoulders, supple head bopping to the beat—offered more than a hint of Paul McCartney in his prime. Pulling clarion sounds from his white Fender Jaguar, making emphatic gestures at key moments with the grace of a matador, Marr was a man in love with his guitar and his music. Not every guitarist can look cool bringing his axe up to chin height, or standing stock-still while strumming fiercely with face lifted toward the ceiling. But he did, somehow without seeming egomaniacal or ironic. Marr just exemplifies the fact that certain players look great holding their instrument: Think Keith Richards, Marr’s first guitar hero.

In any case, all notions of massive egos were dispelled in various ways throughout the evening. Marr doesn’t put on airs. He acknowledged the crowd often, dropping a “Thank you, guys,” between songs, and at one point cheekily chiding the audience, “How many of you have the new album?” There was weak applause. “Lame bastards,” he cracked. But he was just kidding; at the end of the night, he pronounced the Carrboro crowd “a bloody good bunch.”

Those who had come for the chance to hear songs by Marr’s former band were richly rewarded. There were barnburners like “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” the runaway-train heft of “How Soon is Now?” and the plangent melancholy of “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” A few of these Smiths moments felt somehow suspect, that even though Marr had written the song, even though he was, like, 85 percent of the song, Morrissey’s 15 percent, it turns out, was key. While Marr’s vocal delivery works with the long tones of “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” hearing him following Morrissey’s arch pronunciation of “pro-vin-see-al towns” in “Panic” crystalizes what is lacking when you hear these songs without that distinctive Mozzer touch. It’s like hearing a beloved story told by a foreign narrator.

What was impressive, and most surprising, was how good the songs from The Messenger translate to the live setting. Many of the night’s most powerful moments, if you stripped away the emotional resonance for many in the audience, were unfamiliar songs: the New Order melancholy of “New Town Velocity,” for example, which he’s just released as a single, and the bracing “Generate! Generate!” which delivered the taut thrills of indie pop.

But seriously, how many of you have the new album?

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Former Smith Johnny Marr plays his old band's songs in Carrboro, but his new ones were, surprisingly, where the action was.

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