Review: Johnny Marr – Ulster Hall, Belfast
Blue lights and screams heralded the arrival of Manchester’s finest, Johnny Marr, onto the Ulster Hall stage. Men all around woo-hooed in synch to the lyrics of ‘The Tracers’, a track from the new album, Call the Comet. Once again, I found myself at a gig where easily 80% of the audience was made up of men. Artists like Marr and Morrissey tend to have that god-like appeal for the forty-something white male audience.
The ecstasy continued with The Smiths’ banger, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’. This time it was the turn of all the indie-twenty-somethings to almost pee themselves with excitement. That unmistakable Marr solo sounds as fresh as it did thirty-plus years ago, and Marr gasps in mock amazement at his own awesomeness!
Another couple of songs from the new album were next, first the jangling ‘Jeopardy’, before he spoke to this Belfast crowd for the first time, to tell us that his trousers were about to fall down (cue whoops and cheers). Then ‘Day In Day Out’, a song about obsession he explains, “obsess to excess” he sings. At this point my daughter, who was seeing Marr for the first time, grasped my arm eagerly and exclaimed, “The guitar still sounds the same in the new songs”. Obviously, all the greatest guitarists have a signature sound, but you’d be hard pushed to think of one as instantly recognisable as Johnny Marr’s.
Right then, leather jacket off, customary floral shirt revealed, down to business. Under pulsing red lights, Marr sang, “If I could do anything, I’d burn up faster”, ‘New Dominions’, the fifth track from Call the Comet. With its psychedelic sounds and lights and an outro reminiscent of little Danny Torrance’s speeded up chanting of “Red Rum”, if I didn’t know Johnny Marr was “good living” these days, I’d suspect there were a few mind-altering substances involved in the creation of this one. Then ‘Hi Hello’ from the new album, which sounds much more like a Smiths song than most of Marr’s solo material – I could imagine Morrissey singing this one.
During a guitar changeover, from spangly silver to emerald green, someone took the chance to initiate the chant of “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny Fucking Marr!” which rang around the Ulster Hall until the opening bars of ‘Headmaster Ritual’ made the crowd go nuts! While they’re all fans of these old Smiths tracks, there is a clear difference between a Marr crowd and a Moz crowd. For one thing there are fewer quiffs and brothel creepers here, and a lot more Paul Weller haircuts. Both sets of fans are equally passionate though when it comes to these classic tracks. For just a moment, Marr stood poised at the mic, eyes heavenwards, enjoying the rapture. Very cool.
Then, “This is a disco song from Manchester England”, was his introduction to ‘Getting Away With It’ from Marr’s period with supergroup Electronic. All around the room, men hugged one another and pointed towards Johnny singing, “I love you more than you love me”. And they meant it – so much love! The next song he introduced as, “A song about my visit to the astral plane, that ain’t no joke, true story.” There were white crossed spotlights with Marr at the centre, and with wings of light he raised his guitar in the air as if an offering to the gods and sang, ‘Hey Angel’.
Suddenly the room was cast into darkness. When the cheers died down, a spooky, solitary piano struck up and the keyboard player was gradually lit with Halloween-y orange light. Those piano notes elicited more cheers as the crowd recognised the achingly beautiful, ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’. Now, I often cry at gigs, and this was the one point in the night when there was almost a tear – but I managed to hold it together.
After introducing the band members, Marr admitted that he often forgets that he is supposed to talk between songs and quipped that he’d talk about politics. When that drew boos from the crowd, he replied, “Only joking, safe, politics free zone here. Am I allowed to take the piss though?” And when that was met with cheers, he launched into ‘Bug’, his satirical commentary inspired by Trump, Brexit and the state of the world. The song is about a metaphorical virus spreading through our immune system and he dedicated it to, “Someone who looks like he’s got a fucking omelette on his head”. Anti-Trump sentiment often evokes enthusiastic response and the same happened here. Up on the balcony, one little boy who looked about eight, sat next to his dad and the two of them air-drummed ecstatically in time.
A number of requests were shouted from the crowd throughout the night, and while I couldn’t hear every one, Marr’s responses were entertaining. To one he retorted, “No, that’s not one of our songs, you’re not taking this seriously enough sir!” To another he replied, “I don’t think I can remember ‘This Charming Man’ – only joking!”, played the first few notes, then stopped dead, to let the people know he had no intention of playing it! One lucky punter on the balcony though did have his wish fulfilled, when Marr shouted up to him, “I can do that” and burst into Electronic’s, ‘Get the Message’.
Two tracks from the 2014 album Playland were next and a major crowd pleaser was ‘Easy Money’. When it was over, Marr shouted to someone in the crowd who was clearly on his phone, “I hope you’re tweeting to the world that that was fucking ace, because it was!” And then came the only point in the evening when I felt compelled to put down my beer, put down my pen and pad, and pull out my phone to record the stunning ‘How Soon is Now?’ The exuberance of the crowd made it a shaky recording, but a great keepsake of a great gig.
After a short break, Marr and band quickly returned for the encore, welcoming us with “Fancy seeing you here!” and then in his best Belfast accent told us, “This is our new single, so it is!”, which was ‘Spiral Cities’. Spotting a sign waving fan in the crowd, he leaned forward to decipher what it said, before exclaiming, “Yes, it is all mine, and it is fucking awesome, some of us are born this way – it’s the follicles!”
Not letting the energy dip for a second, the night ended with two devastatingly good Smiths tracks, ‘You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet Baby’, and ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’, which to the audience’s great delight, he dedicated to, “Mr. Rory Gallagher.”
This was my second time seeing Mr Marr and I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, I missed Marr’s guitar much more at a Morrisey gig than I missed Moz’s voice at a Marr gig. One sceptical friend has avoided Marr solo, in the belief that it just wouldn’t be the same without “Old Whiney Bollocks” singing the classics. Not so. Another friend argued that because I love Johnny Marr so much that I had made my mind up before the gig and might as well right a preview as a review. Also, not the case. I remembered how good he was last time but went along and topped up that feeling.
I can confirm, that he was great!