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Live Review and Photo Gallery: Johnny Marr at The Vic Theatre

| May 15, 2019

Johnny Marr

The Vic Theatre,

Chicago, IL

Monday, May 13, 2019

Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr’s last appearance in Chicago was a short-but-sweet set under the afternoon sun in Douglas Park at Riot Fest. This brief blast of Eurocentric alt-pop was timed to help introduce new material from 2018’s Call the Comet, the third in a recent string of LPs to find Marr in full command of his prowess as a songwriter, arranger, and guitarist. The concert and new songs were potent reminders of Marr’s role as the principal architect of the Smiths’ sound.

During this week’s headlining show at the Vic, Marr was able to play a sparkling set of road-tested new material to an audience that had ample time to learn the words and sing them back to the stage. The generous set list included eight songs from Call the Comet, other solo gems, breakout favorites by side project Electronic, and heavyweight hits from the Smiths.

The show began with Call the Comet’s unofficial theme song “The Tracers,” as Marr struck guitar-hero poses with his silver-sparkled Fender Jaguar guitar. The Smiths’ “Bigmouth Strikes Again” followed, causing an eruption among the audience, as Marr and a three-piece backing band refined the densely-layered studio orchestration to its primal essence.

New single “Armatopia” recalled Electronic’s electro-pop heyday with its foundation of the pulsing synthesizer.

“The weekend starts here,” announced Marr afterward on this Monday night. He then introduced the shimmering “Day In Day Out,” describing it as a song about obsessions. “New Dominions” was propelled by a tense electronic beat, with metronomic time like a ticking clock. Standout Call the Comet track “Hi Hello” echoed the tone and breezy, urbane vibe of The Smiths’ “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” fused with a hint of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Do it Clean.” “Hey Angel” was introduced as a song about “me and my friend on the astral plane, no joke.”

The healthy selection from Call the Comet crowded out numbers from 2013’s resurgent solo LP The Messenger, omitting fire-starters like “The Right Thing Right” and “Generate! Generate!” that had ignited Marr’s 2014 concert at the Vic.

Crystalline arpeggios and chiming chords heralded The Smiths’ classic “The Headmaster Ritual” and Morrissey’s portrait of unhappy school days.

“This is a disco song from Manchester,” said Marr as the band launched a retooled arrangement of Electronic’s “Getting Away with It” that surpassed the original. After making a bluff by calling for requests and teasing the crowd with a cover of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” (complete with serpentine dance), the band also performed Electronic’s jangling “Get the Message.”

Known as one of rock’s most innovative rhythm guitarists, Marr’s taste and touch as a soloist were also on display. Sonic craftsmanship shone through his enviable lead guitar tone during The Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me.”

The main set concluded with eager crowd-participation during the buoyant “Easy Money” from 2014’s Playland, followed by the cathartic apex of The Smiths’ tremolo-driven “How Soon is Now.” Every voice in the room sang Morrissey’s frustrated chorus lyric as an anthem of unity – “I am human, and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.”

The encore featured irrepressible Call the Comet‘s urgent “Rise” before Marr and band elevated the room with The Smiths’ “There is a Light that Never Goes Out.” The crowd wrung the pathos, glamour and doomed romance from the song with a singalong at fever pitch. Marr traded lines with the audience, singing, “To die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” Upon finishing “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby,” Marr gave his traditional show-closing salute, raising his Jaguar to his forehead. “Let’s do this again sometime real soon,” he said with sheer enthusiasm and appreciation.

Marr may not have Morrissey’s forlorn voice, but he trades his former singer’s penchant for tragic, melancholy lyrics for unrestrained positivity and unity. Even a Smiths die-hard, however, would be hard-pressed to find fault with that. Marr’s sonic mastery and engaging songs make his rejuvenated career worth more than nostalgia. While he sincerely respects what his legacy means to fans, Johnny Marr’s third act is building a watertight case for his staying power and relevance.

-Review by Jeff Elbel; Photos by Curt Baran

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Category: IE Photo Gallery, Live Reviews

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