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.
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.
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.