Johnny Marr at Varsity Theater, 4/23/13

Johnny Marr at Varsity Theater, 4/23/13
Photo by Jeff Gage

Johnny Marr with Alamar Varsity Theater, Minneapolis Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Who needs Morrissey?

It was a question that seemed to hang in the air at the Varsity last night as Morrissey's former Smiths bandmate, Johnny Marr, visited town. It seemed apt all the more given Moz's recent string of canceled local shows. (You could also ask, "Who needs Howler?" but more on that later.) There was nothing prima donna about Marr's performance, as he charged through a set that rarely dipped in energy, the sweat streaming down his face as he belted out the words and tore off guitar solos.

But the question was a reminder, too -- perhaps inevitably -- that the sort of brilliance Marr once enjoyed in Morrissey's company is still only possible in fits and starts on his own.

Marr got down to business straight away as he hit the stage Tuesday night, having been given a let's-just-get-this-started introduction by DJ Jake Rudh, who stood giddily at the side of stage for the rest of the show. Dressed sharply in a striped sport coat with buttons pinned to the lapel, his mop of hair still jet-black even on the cusp of turning 50, Marr launched into the driving riff of "The Right Thing Right." No question, he was here to rock.

But before there was much time to get into the groove of things, the Morrissey specter cropped up. On only the second song, Marr played "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before." Here was that familiar Smiths jangle that, even now, is immediately and unmistakably recognizable. For his own part, Marr did a pretty mean Moz impression -- and not just because all Englishmen sound alike -- and with considerably more spirit too. The message seemed clear: Marr didn't need anyone else to put on a good show, and he was damn well going to prove it.

He was right, to the most part, but after the set's ferocious start things began to dip and sag at different intervals. Marr's solo material was certainly distinct enough from the Smiths covers that were thrown in there, but they were also less consistent. The new "Messenger" was a highlight, with its ricocheting riff, as was "Word Starts Attack," with its own wiry, sprung guitar part. But for each of those there was also a song like Electronic's "Forbidden City," which simply came off as flat, too bland and indistinct to really grab you.

It's the same thing that so often seems to affect musicians that make their name as a member of a truly influential group, and then embark on a solo career. All too often, what was once consistent inspiration peters out to mere professionalism. And the same held true with Marr: a consummate professional -- and, to that end, more of a pure musician than Morrissey will ever be -- his show was tight and immaculately played. On several occasions, in fact, his guitar solos were the highlights of the songs, still daring and explosive, full of whammy bar dives and delivered with a full-on pouting expression.

Yet for all that, a song like "Bigmouth Strikes Again" couldn't help but upstage the proceedings. It, more than all the others, just sounded, to borrow a favorite British phrase, massive. It was urgent, it was big, and it was full of attitude -- except that it was attitude that came off effortlessly, with only a careless sneer, rather than the defiant (and very deliberate) middle finger of, say, "Lockdown."   The old and the new eventually converged in a much a different manner during the encore, when Marr was joined on stage by burgeoning Anglophile Jordan Gatesmith. (Really, he is; he's dating Marr's daughter, after all.) The Howler frontman, who Marr introduced affectionately as "one of his favorite musicians," accounted well enough for himself on a cover of "I Fought the Law," looking like a guy who belonged onstage in such rarified company.

Kind gestures aside, though, Marr took on the serious business of finishing off the night on his own -- and yet, once again, that wasn't entirely true. There was the big bass-driven groove of "Getting Away With It," which gradually revealed itself as a classic, but the finale was yet another duet with the elephant in the room. It was appropriate, in a way, that the night should end that way -- with the siren-like wails of "How Soon is Now?" calling into the night like a beacon for the future, and inescapably a reminder of the past.

Critic's Bias: Pretty well the same as everyone else's, yeah? A Smiths fan, first and foremost, who was excited to see Marr.

The Crowd: A mix of people old enough to have seen the Smiths, and people young to have been born after they broke up.

Overheard in the Crowd: "He's just trying to be Morrissey!"

Random Notebook Dump: Alamar opened the night, just two girls playing guitar and bass with a drum machine. It was moody, a little slow, but a good way start things off.

Setlist: The Right Thing Right Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before Upstarts Sun and Moon There is a Light That Never Goes Out Forbidden City London Lockdown The Messenger Generate! Generate! Say Demesne Bigmouth Strikes Again Word Starts Attack New Town Velocity I Want the Heartbeat

Encore: I Fought the Law Getting Away With It How Soon is Now?

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