Johnny Marr has done alright for himself over the years, hasn’t he? He was the Yin to Morrissey’s Yan in the Smiths, the Grand-wizard of the Cribs for a few years and now he has released his second solo LP and begun a world tour in support of it. Even as he approaches the tender age of fifty, this Mancunian overlord does not look like he is going to stop. Album number two – Playland – is now out and is receiving mostly positive feedback, with most critics noting a strong sense of continuation from his first record The Messenger but with a more butch sound and stronger melodic quality. ‘Easy Money’, the lead single from the album, was released in August and sets the tone in Playland with a huge disco beat, catchy hook, and the expected slick guitar playing that is Marr’s trademark.
This show begins in style with Marr emerging alongside his band in front of large lights spelling out ‘PLAYLAND’. Sticking to the set lists from the previous shows on this tour, he opens up with the aforementioned title track and sets the tone for a strong rock n roll show. Immediately there is a sense of Marr owning the room as he struts around the stage showing off his immaculate knowledge of his instrument. Next comes the first Smiths song of the evening, ‘Panic’, which is received with great enthusiasm, but brings with it an unfortunate step backwards for Marr as his natural, swaggering punk vocal style that we hear in Playland is substituted for a Morrissey impersonation. Though the song is fantastic and the performance of it is musically perfect, it is a shame to hear this change of style which sways the attention of the audience. But fear not, Marr has intelligently created big chunks of his own material to sandwich the Smiths songs and we get a four-song burst of newer material which includes early highlight ‘Easy Money’ which leaves me viewing Marr as a mancunian Nile Rogers – effortless grace on the guitar whilst creating a filthy disco sound that gets hips shaking all around the room. Following ‘Easy Money’ is ’25 Hours’ which doesn’t do much for the crowd but nonetheless displays Marr’s intent to put on a flat out guitar driven show.
‘New Town Velocity’ is a different affair altogether and for the first time in the evening we get a sample of the band’s sultry backing vocals. The crowd appreciate this change of mood greatly, but not as much as the next song – Smith’s Classic ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’. Here comes the trademark Johnny Marr ‘jangle’ on the guitar which gives the gig a wonderful sense of familiarity without the ‘Morrissey’ vocals ever being involved.
Rolling along at a blistering pace, Marr continues to introduce new material with two Playland songs following on from the Smiths’ tune. ‘Back In The Box’ (Playland opening track) is a big, fat, punk slap in the face and emphasises Marr’s songwriting ability that has evolved even since the release of The Messenger. Next comes an unfortunately soft jab at british politicians in the form of ‘Speak Out Reach Out’ which Marr dedicates ‘to the financial sector’ with a cheeky wink. Dissapointingly however the song does not come with the level of attitude that one would expect for an attack on politics and leaves the room a bit flat footed. But before we can dwell on that, ‘Generate! Generate!’ kicks in with its repetitive but strong vocal melodies and is swiftly followed by one of the night’s highlights – ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ – cleverly introduced as ‘Bournemouth Strikes Again’. (See what he did there?) This is not only one of the great Smiths songs but works extremely well for the band who give it a slightly harder edge with pumping drums smacking every beat.
Following this is an unfamiliar lull in the set. Nostalgia hunters have had their fix of The Smiths, most of the best tunes from his new record have been played and now people are interested to see if he has any more tricks up his blazer’s sleeve. Does he disappoint? Not one bit. The unfortunate drop in interest that came with ‘Boys Get Straight’, ‘Candidate’, and ‘The Right Thing Right’ is completely forgotten when Marr pulls out ‘Getting Away With’ – a song by his former supergroup Electronic in which he was joined by Bernard Sumner of New Order. Suddenly the disco lights are out, as is an inspiring masterclass in how to make playing the guitar look slick and effortless whilst the vocals lose importance.
As Marr announces that they have one more song to play, everyone in the house knows what is coming up. Soon enough the stunning chord sequence of ‘There’s A Light And It Never Goes Out’ rings around the room and not a person in the room can help but shake their hips and belt out the lyrics which are equally as powerful now as they ever were.
A very short wait comes next as Marr leaves the stage with his band but swiftly emerges, sporting some of his own merchandise – a ‘Boys Get Straight’ t-shirt – and opens the encore with ‘Still Ill’ by The Smiths. Once again, the song is tight and the performance is smashing, but the Morrissey-esque vocals sneak in and take the Johnny Marr edge away from the performance. ‘Dynamo’ follows and is fine but doesn’t quite match up to some of the other tunes that had come previously and a cover of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’ adds to the mix and arguably solidifies Marr’s punk approach to his new music, but doesn’t bring any real shocks.
The highlight of the entire show, however, is saved until very last with Marr powering through ‘How Soon Is Now?’, much to the delight of everyone in the crowd. Stood at the side of the relatively small and tame crowd, I can safely say that I have never been so mesmerized by someone playing the same chord over and over again. This is a true testament to the presence and musical ability that Marr brings to the live show – something that can never be noticed on a record. Additionally, this song was the perfect end to a powerful show which confirmed his place as a legend, even as a solo artist.
Many questioned Marr’s potential as a solo live act prior to his first tour in support of The Messenger in February 2013, often wondering if the legendary guitarist could fulfil a role as frontman and lead vocalist whilst always being compared to his former counterpart Morrissey. This show at Bournemouth’s O2 Academy gave all the answers to this.