Simon Price on pop: Smiths' reborn rocker Johnny Marr is on the side of the angels

 

Simon Price
Saturday 16 March 2013 20:15
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For a band routinely dismissed as effete, the Smiths were always a surprisingly muscular rock'n'roll entity, whose musical heft created the liberty for the gladioli-thrashing freak at the front to carry on camping. Like the Rolling Stones with Quentin Crisp as lead singer.

That dichotomy, however, comes with certain problems. There's always been a laddish cult surrounding Johnny Marr. At school, it was the Dire Straits boys who couldn't stand "that poof Morrissey" but grudgingly appreciated Marr's guitars. Tonight, as he tours his solo album The Messenger, it's the Huxleyan Epsilons who wear Pretty Green, grope your girlfriend, then get belligerent when you dare to confront them, and tell you that you belong at a different gig.

None of this, of course, is Johnny Marr's fault. Furthermore, Johnny Marr has never implied that Bengalis don't "belong here", complained that there are too many blacks on Top of the Pops, or backed Ukip, so, as ex-Smiths go, he's still on the side of the angels.

We've all seen what's become of Morrissey, deprived of Marr. But the Johnny Marr solo experience? An adequate singer, whose lyrics are functional at best, fronting a solidly unspectacular indie-rock band who happen to possess a liquidly spectacular guitarist. Looking like a standard issue Blondiebloke in his combed-forward fringe, buttoned-up shirt and sharp mod suit, he gurns and poses in a manner which – like fellow reborn rockist Paul Weller – would have appalled his 1983 self. He's nobody's idea of a frontman – a joke about Brighton's excessive number of restaurants gets tumbleweed – but "I may appear casual but I'm actually deeply committed" is a telling aside.

"It's nice that [The Messenger] is out", he says in a bit of gentle press-baiting, "so we can hear what it really is ... instead of reading what it really isn't". It's certainly true that the power pop ordinaire of the album increases in stature when you hear it in the flesh. Marr was always a versatile musician, equally able to channel the Byrds or Fela Kuti or Motorhead. But it's the oldies everyone wants to hear.

Not the cover of the Animals' "It's My Life" so much as Marr's own catalogue, including Electronic's "Getting Away With It"; the Smiths' "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"; "There is a Light that Never Goes Out"; "Bigmouth Strikes Again"; and an utterly ferocious "London", the closest the Smiths ever got to thrash metal.

The showpiece is a curt (four minutes) but staggeringly powerful "How Soon Is Now?", into which Marr throws a few Bo Diddley chops, pointing perhaps to that song's rock'n'roll origins. If he'd played it for the full 90 minutes, no one would have complained.

Despite myself, I find I'm warming to The Lumineers (Brixton Academy, London ***). The Colorado folk-rockers, four reasonably handsome guys with impossibly Amish-sounding names like Wesley and Jeremiah, and one unreasonably cute girl, peddle as ersatz a vision of the American folk tradition as do the Mumfords a British one, and with equally lucrative results.

They're resolutely retrograde in their approach – were it not for the backwards noises at the start of "Submarines", this entire concert could be a Dust Bowl hoe-down – and they subscribe to an aesthetic dominated by the colour brown. Brown boots, brown hats, brown guitars, brown piano, brown cello, brown hair, brown voice, brown songs.

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You may have seen the video for "Ho Hey", populated by pearly toothed extras who all look like the cast of Friends. Tonight, they play it completely unamplified at the front of the stage, successfully shushing the crowd and scoring, er, Brownie points by insisting: "Please put away all cameras and phones – all that matters is right here and now."

It has to be said, they know how to knock out a honky-tonk on a beat-up piano; they know the value of a sparingly deployed foot-stomp; and they know how to get you using phrases such as "beat-up" and "foot-stomp" despite yourself. They brown their way on, then they brown their way off. Now they just need to watch the green stuff roll in.

Critic's Choice

This year's Teenage Cancer Trust season brings Ryan Adams and Beth Orton (Tue); Russell Brand and Noel Fielding (Wed); Primal Scream (Thu); Kasabian (Fri); Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn & Graham Coxon (Sat) and Rizzle Kicks and Labrinth (Sun 24) to the Royal Albert Hall, London.

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