Johnny Marr, Cambridge Junction, March 12 2013

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A mere quarter of a century after The Smiths broke up and guitar legend Johnny Marr is touring in promotion of his debut solo album The Messenger (although he did put out an album about ten years ago credited to Johnny Marr and The Healers but I’m not sure anyone really acknowledges that). I’m sort of amazed to discover he’s playing a show in Cambridge, and at the comparatively intimate Junction rather than the Corn Exchange, and having finally managed to see Morrissey a few years back it seemed only fair to make the effort to balance my ex-Smiths-songwriter account. I don’t know for sure if this concert sold out, but it was certainly pretty crammed in there, and I was lucky to get in early enough to secure a place near the front among a convivial and pleasingly mixed-age crowd – this had the feel of an event rather than just another gig.
FURS

First things first: the support. Three-piece outfit F.U.R.S play the sort of sultry stripped-back garage pop that reminds me of The Kills. They’re pretty good, making up for what they lack in stage presence with a full clear sound and some briskly delivered songs that hold the attention. There’s no bass, but the guitarist appears super-competent and is able somehow to supply enough echoey tinkly bits via his effects pedals to keep things interesting, with the singer occasionally supplementing the mood with a bit of keyboard. It’s nothing startlingly original but they’ve got tunes and they’ve got hooks and they’re a more than decent appetiser.

At the stroke of nine the main man appears wearing a sharp Mod shirt and jacket and sporting a haircut that has something of Bradley Wiggins via The Beatles about it. Straight away any questions about this former side-man’s ability to hold the stage evaporate as he and the band (Jack Mitchell on drums, Iwan Gronow on bass and Doviak on second guitar) launch confidently into the strident The Right Thing Right at a decibel level that has the building shaking, before delighting the audience with Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, the show-stopper that The Smiths didn’t last long enough to perform live. This band is not lacking in attack and is clearly fiercely well drilled to boot. It’s four songs in before Marr talks to the crowd, thanking us for coming out and demonstrating an ushakeable and very Mancunian self-confidence by dismissing one punter’s request for Miserable Lie as being a bit retro. He’s not into wasting time though and the band carry on at a fair lick, with Marr being canny enough to throw in an old favourite every now and then to break up the run of newer and less familiar material. By mid-set both band and audience are dripping with sweat. This is a proper work-out by someone setting high standards for himself, to the degree of leaving his top button done up all night.

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Despite the efficiency and energy of the performance I do however have a few reservations that keep me from being totally won over. Partly it’s the nagging sense that both Marr’s new songs and his (technically faultless) vocals are fatally lacking in the character necessary for them to really register and partly it’s that the relentless barrage of quite similar sounding not-quite-anthems gets a bit wearying. I find myself aching for JM to send the band off for a couple of numbers, pick up an acoustic guitar and treat us to something delicate and unadorned like Back To The Old House. Marr’s too classy and committed an operator to ever really let the show descend into sludgy Oasis-style Dad-rock but the danger signs are there. Even when they do it slow it down and bring on a keyboard it’s not really much in the way of relief, and the contrast between the audience’s muted reaction to this song and the eruption that ensues on the intro to the next (“an old Manchester folk song” also known as Bigmouth Strikes Again) is striking. My main beef though is with the horrible muddy too-loud sound mix, which may well be out of Marr’s control as it wouldn’t be the first time this problem’s cropped up for me at this venue. It may well just be me getting old, but I’m reaching the end of my tolerance levels for slabs of distorted over-driven guitar noise and barely discernible vocals – it wouldn’t be so bad, but here and there you can tell Marr’s executing some elegant fingerpicking and it would be nice to hear it properly.

My issues with the gig fall away with the encores though. A punchy I Fought The Law is followed by a supple take on Electronic’s Getting Away With It, the more overtly melodic and less confrontational nature of which provides a clue as to how Marr might want to vary the pace of his main set in future. He closes with a faithfully rendered and rapturously received How Soon Is Now? and actually getting to hear that much sampled grinding and shimmering riff played by its composer more or less justifies the ticket price alone. I’ve now heard versions of this song done by both Morrissey and Marr…I’ve only got to hear Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce try it and I’ve got the set. It was great to see Marr despite the ropeyness of the sound, and the exuberance of the audience reaction indicated that I was definitely in the minority with my reservations. By all accounts he’s a lovely bloke and he deserves his success.

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4 responses to “Johnny Marr, Cambridge Junction, March 12 2013

  1. Usually your reviews are spot-on but on this occassion I have to defend Johnny – at least it seems my chum Vanessa and I experienced yesterday’s gig very differently (we were far right of the stage near the speakers).

    (Just so you know where I’m coming from Vanessa was the massive Smiths fan. I accompanied her to a Smiths gig and several Morrissey gigs, so I didn’t have as much riding on last night as the fans, having nothing to lose and everything to gain. Furthermore, having seen Morrissey live a few times, it seemed only right that we supported Johnny).

    Because I wear ear plugs the sound was filtered – to me it sounded very good. (Thanks to The Cult I have mild tinnitus & don’t want my hearing to deteriorate further. Obviously, I feel for artists who catch sight of me with my fingers up to my ears, giving the wrong impression.)

    I don’t know what I expected but I didn’t expect him to seize the stage and audience with his rockin’ riffs and pace. Two songs in Vanessa and I were already exchanging ‘this is really good’ glances. The gig would have stood up even without the Smith’s tunes – although these were an unexpected pleasure and proved, if already known, his part in the Mozzer/Marr partnership.

    (I once read that ‘How Soon is Now’ is to the ’80s as Led Zep’s Stairway to Heaven was to the ’70s – it remains pleasingly unique.)

    Even if his voice lacked strength (it improved as the gig went on) his new material is well crafted both musically and lyrically, most importantly it was pleasing on the ear – something not many artists achieve on the first listening of their material, which speaks volumes (good enough for us to buy his new CD post-gig). After the first few attention grabbing numbers, the rest of his new material revealed its range such as the title track, so I think, Ben, you are being a little harsh in your review but, to be fair to you, I suspect it’s probably down to the lack of ear plugs.

    Post-gig we joined a small crowd gathering outside the Junction compound, which swelled to about 30. He appeared on his own and insisted on being let out of the compound so he quickly disappeared amongst the crowd. To say he is lovely is an understatement. He seemed to get as much pleasure in seeing committed fans who have approached him before as opportunists like us.

    It was freezing!!! Yet, he was still signing as I drove off about 15 – 20 minutes later. He was down to the last handful of fans and I had the impression that he didn’t stop until he had spoken to everyone.

    Vanessa and I had the impression it was a great gig and really appreciated by the mixed audience. However, queueing for merchandise and for autographs we discovered that lots of fans were from out of town and complained to us and Johnny about the luke warm reception. As a Cantabrigian (?) I said that it was a good night to which (sorry, can’t quote verbatim) Johnny wanted to know what we did when we really let our hair down and, having been in the Smiths, he recognised a miserable reception (note: this was a jocular off-the-cuff remark and I think he would hate to come across as sounding unappreciative. All other indications were very much to the contrary.)

    Keep the review coming!

    • Thanks Nicola! Great write-up and brilliant that you and Vanessa got to meet him. The new CD definitely sounds great and there’s no-one around who knows more about how to record and layer guitar lines to maximum effect, it’s just that I can’t really hear any memorable songs there and there doesn’t seem to be any substance to the lyrics. But it’s a good tip about the earplugs, if I dare to venture out to see stadium-style rock again I’ll think about getting some!

      • Actually, I do have one niggle and it’s not just addressed to Johnny Marr but all artists who play Cambridge and make references to our lovely city with all the attendant implications of privilege – he’s not the first and won’t be the last (Johnny mentioned our city planners who decided not to build rafts of skyscrapers).

        In the Joy Division film which is based on interviews someone mentions that Manchester is also a mind-scape (I think it may have been Paul Morley and relegated to an extra feature). So, whilst myself and other audience members were lucky to have grown up in Cambridge and on the surface appear not to have a common understanding/background, as a teenager I was no different from any other for whom an uncertain future was a terrifying prospect and laboured under all the unusual feelings of alienation etc. My mind-scape was as bleak as Manchester and bands like Joy Division provided the sound track which matched my mood (most nights were spent listening to John Peel) – hence, my continuing fondness and appreciation for Manchester and its talented sons. I don’t think Johnny meant it as a snide comment, nevertheless it stings.

        (One of the most fun nights Vanessa and I had was in Leeds pub which played only Smiths songs. We drank, sang and danced, AND had an instant set of friends. Where we came from was irrelevant.)

  2. Pingback: Neko Case, London Village Underground, 24 May 2013 | the tale of bengwy

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