Johnny Marr @ Paradise Rock Club 5.4.13
by Ben Stas, published May 6th 2013
photos by Ben Stas
Influential British guitarist, singer and songwriter Johnny Marr wrapped up a North American tour supporting his first full-fledged solo album in Boston on Saturday night. Marr has spent most of the past several decades working and touring with the likes of Modest Mouse, The Cribs and The The, but his most famous role remains that of guitarist and co-songwriter for the legendary (and very much disbanded) Smiths. Indeed, his career is characterized by numerous roles as a sideman, co-writer or contributor. Even the first record on which he assumed songwriting duties for every track, 2003’s Boomslang, was credited as a collaboration with The Healers rather than a solo affair.
2013’s The Messenger is the first instance of Marr confidently stepping out on his own, and Saturday’s sold-out Paradise show seemed to adhere to that idea. From the second he set foot on stage, Marr was operating as a true frontman. There was a certain rock-star swagger in his guitar-twirling stage moves, and surely in the bright red “JOHNNY FUCKIN’ MARR” t-shirt he donned during the encore. The shirt might have come across as a bit pompous if not for the powerhouse set that preceded its appearance. Marr and his backing band delivered precise, commanding and surprisingly deafening renditions of Messenger tracks and back catalog favorites. Marr’s trademark fretwork was in full force, bouncing from intricately-picked melodies to tightly-coiled chord changes and making it look easy. A drummer, bassist and second guitarist filled out the songs, and the results were impressive.
The Messenger was the main focus of the night, with 10 of its 12 songs making the setlist. Things slowed down for the title track and “Say Demense,” but rockers like “Upstarts” and “Generate! Generate!” brought the momentum for much of the set. The inclusion of six Smiths songs didn’t hurt, either. Former frontman Morrissey might think himself the only Smith worthy of performing the band’s material, but this tour found Marr seizing equal ownership of songs he helped write. Reinterpretations of The Smiths never sound quite the same, but Marr and his band nonetheless delivered satisfying renditions of “Still Ill,” “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” among others.
Morrissey and Marr may endeavor to keep themselves as far distanced from one another as possible, but it’s difficult not to draw comparisons between the shows of the two former partners. Marr’s club gig surely lacked the grand theatricality of Morrissey’s Wang Theatre show last year. Only Moz, after all, could get away with an aggro, seven-plus minute “Meat is Murder” set to black-and-white factory farm footage, and conclude “How Soon is Now?” by ripping off his satin shirt and tossing it into the crowd. What Marr lacked in showiness, however, he made up for with strong musicianship and that certain spark of energy that only comes from a small venue performance. His reputation as a sideman precedes him, but Marr can clearly hold his own as a solo artist.