Johnny Marr-velous Plays the Wellmont: May 1, 2019
Updated: May 16, 2019
Former Smith's guitarist Johnny Marr, kicked off the most recent leg of his Call The Comet tour in Montclair, New Jersey last night and yet again, dropped my jaw to the floor.
Last night I dreamt... kidding, this was real (Smith's reference). Right from the start of the night, as I walked through the metal detectors, the security guard uttered, "another pair of Doc Martens over here, since when did these become a thing again," in reference to the girl next to me. From Doc Martens, to Paisley Shirts, leather jackets, black scarves and surprisingly nobody with flowers sticking out of their back pocket; it was everything I had anticipated on seeing. Regardless, the crowd was filled with great vibes all around, everyone's truly happy and excited to see our guy. Everybody seemed happy on the outside, but then again, if we're all at a Smith's related gig, chances are pretty good that we're all downers to a certain degree. This was my third time seeing Johnny Marr, the wizard that he is, within the past year. I'm fortunate enough to have seen him at the Gramercy Theatre in May 2018, Irving Plaza in October 2018 and last night for the third time in Montclair, NJ. Johnny played for just under two hours and busted out a 20 song setlist mostly comprised of his new album, Call The Comet as well as every major staple from The Smiths. Only at a Smith's affiliated gig will you find a room filled with hundreds or thousands of people singing from the top of their lungs about crashing into a double decker bus and getting killed by a ten ton truck. Essentially singing a song about death with an ear to ear smile while doing so, truly magical.
Usually when guitar players embark on solo careers, they're just painful to watch and listen to, it just gives them a way of staying relevant within the press and being about to tour the world based off the success of their previous bands/projects. That's not the case here; Johnny Marr's most recent album, Call The Comet is without question his strongest album of his solo career and in my honest opinion, includes some of the best music he's ever recorded since he was in the Smiths 30 years ago. Call The Comet gave Johnny the platform to be himself, the Johnny we all know and love without experimenting with electronic-pop or playing other guitarist's music in bands like The Pretenders and Modest Mouse. This album features his trademark jangle-pop playing, mythical guitar fills in between verses, flanged chords followed by mesmerizing licks that make you want to pick up a guitar instantly.
The video below is to a song that doesn't feature much, if any of his wizard-like playing, but it's a very mellowed out song with a beautiful riff and explosive chorus accompanied by the most precise visual you could possibly pair with the music.
A little back story, Johnny had to postpone the first three dates of this current leg of the tour due to visa issues entering the United States, thus resulting in the Montclair show being the first of this leg. It's only fitting that he's an outspoken critic of Donnie and the omelette on his head, that he had trouble entering the country. The lights went black and out he came with his sparkling white signature model Fender Jaguar and introduced himself in proper Johnny Marr fashion with a beautiful jangle before playing up a storm and cleansing it out with his stomp box and off they went, opening with the lead single to the album, "The Tracers," then followed by one of my favorite Smith's songs of all time, "Bigmouth Strikes Again," and the theater erupted with excitement. I don't know if he hired a new sound engineer or what happened, but this was the clearest I've ever heard him play; the first two shows were somewhat loaded with feedback and I couldn't really hear him all that well, however, the sound coming out of his crystal patterned guitar, sounded crystal clear last night. After a few songs, Johnny then approached the mic and said, "Hey everybody, we made it!! You're gonna have to try harder than that to keep me out, Donnie!!" He then played through a few more songs from Call The Comet before breaking out another Smith's classic with his trademark playing, "The Headmaster Ritual," a song that made everyone in the venue, including himself jump up and down with joy as he sang about the belligerent ghouls who run Manchester schools and spineless swines with cemented minds. The Smith's in a nutshell are a band that were comprised of Morrissey's blunt depressing lyrics and Johnny Marr's uplifting and head bopping guitar playing; paired together to create the perfect Yin-Yang balance of light and dark, resulting in people joyously singing dark and depressing themes as a result of the uplifting instrumental melodies.
"This is a disco song from Manchester, England!"
Fast forward to 2:50 and watch Marr, the magician do what he does...
(Video courtesy of Mark Liu)
This performance of, "Getting Away With It," was my highlight of the night. After The Smiths had dissolved, Johnny had teamed up with Bernard Sumner, former Joy Division guitarist and synth-pop band, New Order. The two had performed under the name, Electronic where they wrote electronic-alternative dance music. He then performed one of their more popular songs, "Getting Away With It," a song comprised entirely of keyboards, synthesizers and drums machines, except he has since re-invented the song and replaced the majority of the keyboards with guitars. Midway through the song, Marr started noodling around in a different key and tempo, then the next second, a disco ball dropped and he changed the entire key of the song and played the most beautiful lick sequence I've ever seen him perform either live or on a studio recording, I literally stood there with my jaw hanging open for around 3 minutes straight as he effortlessly played the most mythical progression I've ever witnessed life. When I tell you I stood there with my jaw open the entire time, I sincerely mean that, I don't know how anybody didn't take a picture of me and make a meme out of it.
You'd actually think that this would be the highlight instead, but when I tell you the performance of that song blew my mind, it literally blew a fuse. Usually at his shows, he jokingly says, "anyone got any requests?" and of course, me and my big mouth shouted, "THIS CHARMING MAN!!!" a song he NEVER plays live because the guitar track is simply impossible to play, listen to the studio track and you'll know exactly what I mean within the first 10 seconds . He then looked right at me and tilted his head, approached the mic and said, "C'mon man, you know I can't play that!!" So I then threw my hands up and said, "C'mon! Yes you can, you're Johnny f-cking Marr!!" So he then played through the opening riff and screwed it up, and said, "See?!? I really don't know how to play it!!"He played it again, then screwed up a second time, then asked the crowd if anyone knew how to play it. He then played it a third time around, nailed it and ended up performing the song in its entirety!! I couldn't believe it! This marked just the second time in the past year that he's played, "This Charming Man." Whether or not it was already on the setlist and he was already planning on playing it, I have no idea, I didn't get a chance to see the physical setlist on stage, but of course I'd like to think he played it solely because I asked him to.
(Video courtesy of M. Liu)
The band then went backstage for a short break, waiting to come out to a roaring crowd for an encore. They came back out and played two more songs from Call The Comet, followed by the two songs that most people had been looking forward to hearing all night, "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," and "You Just Haven't Earned it Yet, Baby," two of the greatest songs The Smiths had ever recorded. Myself and numerous others got a kick out of this. Taking more jabs at the president, he said at the mic, "We were supposed to go to Atlanta on Saturday night, but "the boss," wouldn't let us in *thumbs down*. My manager said because I went on television in the United States and said that he had an omelette on his head and, he wouldn't let us in. You'd think that guy would have a better thing to do than worry about that, although if I had that hairstyle, I'd definitely worry about it."
As referenced earlier, it was then that time of the night where he played arguably The Smith's most famous song, "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," and before you knew it, you had 2,000 people joyously singing about getting crashed into by a double decker bus and getting killed by a ten-ton truck, weird, yet unique and extremely beautiful. Last night's show truly solidified my love for Johnny Marr not only as a studio musician, but also a live musician. Regardless of how much I may love The Smiths at this stage of my life as a 25 year old, I can assure you that in the future, I will go out of my way to see him live at any remotely close location, whether I've been listening to his music at the time or not. He is a truly charismatic and charming individual and one of the most brilliant guitarists I've ever seen live. As great a singer/songwriter as Morrissey is, Johnny Marr will always be my guy and will always be the most integral member of The Smiths in my honest opinion.
On a completely unrelated note, it kind of creeped me out seeing him so up close in personal because even from a straight male's perspective, he's the best-looking 55 year old I've ever seen in-person in my entire life (sorry Mom and Dad). Maybe the whole vegan diet and marathon running lifestyle has more to offer than initially thought!!