With the first pick in the 2013 rock and roll draft, Weeping Elvis selects: Johnny Marr, guitarist, Manchester.
Johnny Marr. He’s the Helen of Troy of guitarists, his signature sound having launched 10,000 bands. Co-founder of a generically-named band — The Smiths — who were anything but generic. A member of The Pretenders, Electronic, The The, and Modest Mouse. Founder of Johnny Marr + The Healers, collaborator with countless others, and now a solo artist (touring with a killer band). A 49-year old guitar god of the first order, clearly, and perhaps the last to introduce a truly unique and original style into British rock.
Recently, Marr was a long-term resident of Portland, Oregon before revisiting the Manchester roots of his 35-year career to record his first solo record. Which isn’t to say that he lacks experience as either a composer or frontman…he doesn’t. While he will almost certainly remain known for his groundbreaking guitar work with The Smiths, whose first single was released 30 years ago next month, he refuses to rest upon that laurel and is instead continually seeking new challenges.
His first solo album occasioned a tour, of course, and on this night he found himself at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club (in his words, “the legendary 9:30 Club”). He found himself on stage in front of a mostly male crowd that is mostly heavier than when discovering Marr’s virtuosity in their prime years. The music remains prime, now a father figure to a legion of this generation’s musicians, and his adulating fan base remains (forgive me) a light that never goes out. It was a strong crowd — seeming sold out given the densely packed venue– as Marr strode onto stage wielding his white-on-white modified Fender Jaguar, his customized version that inspired a signature edition launched by Fender in 2012.
An audience of this nature presents certain challenges to the performer. Older audiences often take longer to warm up, and on a Monday night they’re often preoccupied with the week ahead. But they aren’t here by accident. They’re here for an escape to their youth, a respite from work deadlines and college funds and other vagaries of middle age. They’re here for sounds that — whether from their youth or more recently vinted — will trigger transport to a time and place where problems seem retrospectively trivial.
Marr is touring with three fantastic musicians who hold up their end of the bargain. It’s mostly that straight-ahead drumming that punctuates the air as it lays down the beat. Rhythm is accentuated by properly aggressive bass lines, their stridency heavier in the mix than composition. And that almost ever-present jangly guitar ensures that the atmospherics are in their proper place. Their proper place, of course, being to surround Marr’s lead guitar with appropriate levels of support. They are always complementary, never usurping center stage. This is professional musicianship, warmly emotive and on point.
There are real gems in Marr’s new material — a retort to intellectual snobbery named”Lockdown” and the barn-burner “Generate! Generate!” were particularly enthralling — but there’s no denying that this is a crowd that reaches its greatest frenzy during the four numbers usually sung by Morrissey. And this is where particular light shone upon Marr’s worthiness as a frontman. Both literally and figuratively, actually. Whether shades of red, white, blue,or magenta…the house lights stay fixated upon the man who redefined lead guitar, the man whose name is on the ticket.
In a sense, one could say that it — his guitar — is truly the frontman. It is, but that isn’t to say that Marr doesn’t ably share the spotlight. His vocals are clear and tuneful, often bearing a stronger resemblance to his former bandmate’s iconic vox than could be reasonably expected. And in this sense, it’s somewhat amazing that Marr pulls off lead vocals while also playing intricate and complicated lead guitar parts. He’s essentially playing point and counterpoint on two competing instruments, a feat in itself.
The clear difference, perhaps, is that in Marr’s solo material the music itself is ascendant, never an accompanying political message. This isn’t to say the teetotaling vegan is without political views, but they are not as obvious in his solo work as in, say, an album entitled Meat is Murder. He includes a track from his work with Electronic (“Forbidden City”) as well as those four Smiths’ songs, (“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” “London,” “Bigmouth Strikes Again”) in the fifteen song set, and it wasn’t far into the evening before the crowd was hanging on every jangly note.
The encore opens with Marr declaring, “Let’s have some fun.” The band rips into a riotous version of “I Fought the Law” and its clear that they’re having as much fun as their close-to-overheating crowd. It continues with Electronic’s Psychedelic Furs-inflected “Getting Away With It.” And then it comes to a close in perhaps the most fitting way possible, with the indescribable and iconic guitar sounds associated with The Smiths’s “How Soon is Now.” Here, Marr does something few guitarists could conceive of, let alone attempt…he alternately loosens and tightens one of his tuning pegs to create a wildly varying pitch that meshes perfectly with the surrounding sounds of 1985.
Two of the best guitarists in rock were in D.C. on this night (Kaki King was playing a few blocks away). And Rhianna. So it’s not like this audience didn’t have a choice for its concert-going dollar. But it seems safe to say that few present at 9:30 Club will lament their selection, because for about 80 minutes on a Monday night, youth was recaptured and the pleasure, the privilege, were once again attributable to Mr. Johnny Marr.
Photos: Erica Bruce
Bonus Photos: Tim Pogo