Johnny Marr @ Albert Hall, Manchester, 4 Sep
The iconic Manchester axeman brings down the curtain on Call the Comet with a career-spanning homecoming show
Johnny Marr is back home, and he’s letting us know about it. “They’re from Chorlton,” he says, pointing to a particularly vocal section of the sold out crowd, who’ve just bellowed out their loyalty to the hipster-friendly south Manchester suburb. “Can we get them some houmous, then?” This cheeky, affectionate reduction of each given area to its stereotype continues until it reaches a logical conclusion. “Wythenshawe? Fucking hell. Weed!”
This is the first of two Manchester shows, both sold out, that one of the city’s favourite sons announced as a late-notice bookend last month, and what’s most striking about both the set and those gathered to hear it is that, finally, it seems as if Marr has carved out not just a solo identity all his own, but a fanbase, too. Remember, for many years he was the consummate sideman. Even after The Smiths, his CV still fizzes with successful hookup after successful hookup, from his studio work with Blondie and The Pretenders through to extended periods on loan at Modest Mouse and The Cribs.
All of which is to say that the sight of him front and centre was peculiar six years ago when he put out The Messenger; even when he fronted The Healers in the early noughties, he still looked like first among equals. Tonight, though, there’s a palpable sense that he’s dialled in a genuinely affectionate audience for his solo endeavours, which run the gamut from fuzz-pop (opener The Tracers) to stormy flirtations with shoegaze (Walk Into the Sea, New Dominions) and the returns to his signature jangle that largely characterised last year’s Call the Comet (Hi Hello, Day In Day Out).
Marr has long been working key tracks from his back catalogue into his solo live sets but appears to have taken that up a notch in support of Call the Comet; just two tracks in tonight, he drops a serious deep cut as the first of a slew of Smiths songs to make the grade, the abandoned single You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby. He’s happy to crowd please, too; there’s an undeniable magic to seeing the man who conjured the iconic riffs to Bigmouth Strikes Again, This Charming Man and Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me bringing them to life once more, especially as Morrissey’s live guitarists have been butchering them as a matter of routine at his shows for years.
That particular nostalgia trip peaks with a towering How Soon Is Now?, even if – by Marr’s own admission – it differs from the recorded version because even he can’t quite remember how he coaxed the slide sound from his Epiphone back in 1984. Elsewhere, though, he incorporates some of the more niche moments from his storied career, including an energetic, slightly ramshackle run through Getting Away with It and, later, Get the Message, the high points from Electronic, his post-Smiths collaboration with Bernard Sumner. To open the encore, there’s a slightly incongruous take on A Certain Ratio’s club classic Shack Up, to which his son, Nile, lends his own guitar – fitting, given that the influence of the hero of Marr’s he was named after, Nile Rodgers, hangs heavy over the track.
That’s not the only slight misstep; suspicions that Marr’s poppy, polished 2014 LP Playland hasn’t aged well are confirmed by the total absence of tracks from it other than Easy Money, which sounds like Hard-Fi and lyrically is already dated, although in fairness, he could hardly have predicted the political tumult that would follow. Otherwise, though, tonight’s set isn’t just the homecoming triumph that the closing one-two of Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want and There Is a Light That Never Goes Out suggest – it’s proof positive that Marr’s solo work can be used to draw a thoughtful arc through his entire history as a musician.