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Johnny Marr, Concert, Gloria (Cologne) 03.12.2018,

Johnny Marr, Gloria (Cologne)
By Gavin Fearnley

There’s something in the air. Maybe it’s the smell of mulled wine from German Christmas markets outside. Possibly it’s the crisp, black winter night. Perhaps it’s a sold-out theatre. Whatever it is, it’s electric.

And then the lights go down. Four figures walk on stage in darkness and a collective double-take seems to take over. Is it really him? Well, there’s the sixties-style hair, the wiry figure, the drainpipe trousers. It’s him, all right. It’s Johnny Marr.

Why the surprise? We didn’t turn up hoping for a carol recital. It’s more how up-close-and-personal we are. There are no barriers, no security staff separating the audience from the artists and it feels as if we’re almost on stage ourselves. It’s surreal and our eyes need time to adjust.

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Marr and that other bloke changed this author’s life. Being handed a cassette by an older school friend with two albums on it by The Smiths made adolescence the most extraordinary, vivid time. Skiving sport lessons, avoiding the brutality of the rugby pitch to head into the Yorkshire hills with ‘Hatful of Hollow’ on a Walkman is seared into the memory. Will nature make a man of me, yet?

It wasn’t just Steven Patrick’s lyrics, though. Why pamper life’s complexity, when someone can make a guitar sing like it had just fallen from some celestial height. ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’, ‘Back to The Old House’ or the timeless instrumental ‘Oscillate Wildly’ sounded like nothing before. Marr and the quiffed singer meant the world; even if the world wouldn’t listen.

So when he walks on stage, there are faces of pleasant disbelief among the cheers. It’s Johnny Marr all right, but we’re not sure we can still quite believe it. The punk-pop synth-stomp of ‘The Tracers’, from latest album ‘Call the Comet’, kicks off proceedings and jolts us out of our daze. It doesn’t last for long, and we’re back in dreamland for ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ – the first of 6 (count them, SIX) Smiths songs to make an appearance tonight.

Okay, I’ll say it. You know it, and I know it. There’s an elephant in the room and it’s got “This Isn’t Morrissey” daubed on the side of it in big red paint. Well, to Marr’s credit, he’s not trying to emulate any past-colleagues. Johnny Marr singing Bigmouth Strikes Again sounds just like Johnny Marr singing Bigmouth Strikes Again… and yes, it works. Not only does it work, it is brilliant. Marr can sing, as already demonstrated in past solo-albums, and looks like a man who feels more than comfortable in performing these songs. He is, after all, the one who wrote them alone in bedrooms and tour buses.

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Ooooh, Johnny Johnny Johnny

‘Jeopardy’, ‘Day In Day Out’ and the glorious ‘HI Hello’, his most Smiths-like-sounding single of the last thirty years, come next. Obviously written with a live audience in mind, he performs these songs whilst constantly moving around the stage, shaking his hips like Marc Bolan and lifting his guitar up into the air as if playing the part of the protagonist in a biopic of The Who’s Pete Townshend.
Then there are the gurns and the stares into the crowd. Marr almost ignores the celebratory shouts which greet his facial expressions. Almost. Sometimes the mask slips and we get a smile. “Cologne, it’s been too long,” he grins.

The next song from his Smiths’ treasure chest is ‘The Headmaster Ritual’. Having heard the other former Smith sing this live with fervour in the UK, it’s a joy to hear non-British audiences chant along to lines such as “belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools, spineless bastards all” with an emphasis on flat northern-English vowels.
Indeed, one of the largest cheers of the evening arises when Marr introduces ‘Getting Away with It’ by Electronic, his erstwhile project with New Order’s Bernard Sumner. “This is a dance song from Manchester, England… EUROPE,” he says and we understand. What an important statement that has become these days.

Marr is clearly in his element tonight, joking that he’d “forgotten how to play This Charming Man” before cheerily and effortlessly playing the opening riff. He’s teasing and playing with us. And how we lap it up.

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The dramatic piano introduction to ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ from the last Smiths album ‘Strangeways Here We Come’ comes soon after, leaving us wondering if this is another attempt to coax us. The result is a half-orchestral epic, reminding us Marr’s genius isn’t restricted to the heavy distortion led tracks of the past decade.

2018 single ‘Spiral Cities’ brings us back up to date before we’re back to the classics. ‘Get the Message’, again from Electronic, and then ‘How Soon Is Now?’. Once more, you do start to double-take. How many times have we heard this in clubs, on pub jukeboxes … in samples in songs like ‘Hippychick’ by Soho (ask your grandparents) … and here we are, in touching distance to the man who wrote it.

An encore of ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ is suitably moving with Marr leaving a lot of the singing to a by-now vociferous and rabid audience. I catch an audience member with the song’s title tattooed on his arm. Is he crying? It could end there, but it doesn’t. Marr charges straight into ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby’ and we’re transported to rain-soaked moorlands on the wind-swept Pennines looking down onto Manchester.

The elephant in the room has long tiptoed out and we’re left with the feeling that we’ve witnessed something special, in the company of one of that city’s greatest sons. In a few days, BuzzcocksPete Shelley will be dead and it’s another reminder. There’s something in the air up in Manchester, too. Bottle it up, before it all disappears.
They’ve earned it, baby.

Marr – Official Webpage

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