Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Johnny Marr – Brixton Academy, London 23/10/14

27 October 2014, 13:00 | Written by Ed Nash

Despite the clamour in certain quarters for Johnny Marr to return to his alma mater, what’s evident from the off this evening is that rather than wallowing in nostalgia he's only interested in the here and now. Yes, he plays some Smiths songs. but they’re not an exercise in karaoke; he makes them part of his present with the gusto of his singing. The Smiths numbers included in the set fit perfectly with his current aesthetic, namely a taut, muscular guitar rock overlaid with an atmospheric sheen. The tunes are filled with cinematic interludes and the music moves effortlessly from space-rock to Ennio Morricone to new-wave. The solo stage of his career is the latest part of his constant evolution, except this time he’s dictating the lyrical as well as the musical narrative.

Coming on to a backdrop of neon lights flashing "Playland", the title of his second solo album, he opens with the title track which sets the scene beautifully. It’s cerebral, futuristic rock music melded with his jaw dropping guitar playing, perhaps it’s sometimes taken for granted what a groundbreaking, game changing musician he is. There’s a whiff of Dorian Gray about him too, clad in a dapper Mod jacket he doesn’t seem to have aged and his energy is relentless - he bobs and weaves like a leaner version of Robert De Niro’s Jake Lamotta from Raging Bull throughout.

He acknowledges The Smiths early on with a pulsating “Panic”, the slide-guitar sounds as besotted with T-Rex’s “Metal Guru” as ever and the “Hang the DJ” line is sang with aplomb, he’s still raging against the state of mainstream radio and contemporary Britain. And speaking of raging, his politics dominate the new songs, “Easy Money” is a funked up barb on capitalism, “Candidate” tells the story of the man on the street, but with realism rather than romanticism and the arrangement is a marvel. Starting like a piece of ambient electronica, the intricate guitar motif gives way to a thunderous chorus and then flies into a breathless coda. It’s not self-indulgent noodling by any means, simply very emotional and deliberately crafted music.

“25 hours” pulls off a similar trick, starting with a dissonant a Capella vocal before morphing into what sounds like a Spaghetti Western soundtrack and you’re left wondering how on earth he can sing and play these notes at the same time. Electronic’s “Getting Away With It” makes an appearance too, with a healthy dollop of groove the coda the closest he gets to his beloved Chic.

The Smiths songs are given heroes welcomes throughout and when “There Is A Light…” arrives the love in the room ramps up tangibly, with the audience recreating the football terrace atmosphere that his former band prided themselves on. It climaxes with a thrillingly mercurial guitar solo and then he’s off and the neon lights simply flash “Johnny Fuckin Marr”.

For the encore he literally runs onto the stage playing the intro of “Still Ill” which sounds as urgent tonight as it did in the 80s and there’s a certain archness to the line “We cannot cling to the old dreams anymore.” Playland’s highlight, the frenetic “Dynamo” unashamedly pinches the melody of “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs and the chorus is a delight, a relentlessly energetic, starry-eyed story of love.

His friend Noel Gallagher joins for a sprightly cover of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” the precursor to the finale, a majestic take on “How Soon Is Now?” which retains the power of the original recording, but having three guitarists swells it out even further. At its crescendo Marr skips to the front, adding a Bo Diddley groove by detuning the E string while Gallagher chips in with the high notes. The pair touchingly embrace and Marr’s supremely drilled band leave the stage to allow him to soak up the applause.

As the lights come up The Kinks’ “Set Me Free” booms from the PA and you can’t help but think it’s a subtle plea from this most modern of artists, asking to be judged on the entirety of his body of work rather than just of his first band. Tonight was a glorious celebration of his career, his love of music and most importantly the need to keep moving, which this polymath continues to do quite brilliantly. Who knows where he’ll go next, but at the moment single life seems to be suiting him down to the ground.

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