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Johnny Marr - Institute, Birmingham, 16/3/2013

  by Anthony Strutt

published: 24 / 3 / 2013

Johnny Marr - Institute, Birmingham, 16/3/2013


Anthony Strutt watches former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr at the Institute in Birmingham play a stunning show on his first tour under his own name to promote 'The Messenger', which is his debut solo album

A lot of the groups that I love miss out on playing Leicester where I now live when they are touring, and quite often the nearest city the come to is either Sheffield or Birmingham. Both cities are difficult to get to and back from, and so getting to this gig is a bit of a hassle from start to finish. On the day of Johnny Marr’s show in Birmingham I have to swap work shifts around, but still manage to get there in time for breakfast. Every time I see him live I try to meet him beforehand, as he changed my life forever. As the guitarist in the Smiths, he soundtracked my life back in back in the 1980s, and he still does. This time around he remembers me, politely signing yet another pile of CDs which I offer him, including ones he has never seen before, such as the soundtrack to the film ‘1969’ to which the Pretenders of which he was very briefly a member contributed the one song he ever recorded with them, ‘Windows of the World’. For the bulk of that day, Birmingham is wet and horrible, but having met Marr yet again it is sunny as far as I am concerned. Tonight is a few dates into the tour he is doing to promote his new album, ‘The Messenger’. It is the first time he has toured and release a record bearing his name alone. He did tour and put out his 2003 album, ‘Boomslang’ under the moniker of Johnny Marr and the Healers, but that album, does not stand up as well as ‘The Messenger’ does, which I think is a masterpiece. Johnny Marr has always been a sound guitarist, especially in a live setting, The Birmingham audience is very mixed in age, and for a good percentage of the crowd it will be the first time they will have ever seen him, but a lot of others will have grown up with him, turned vegetarian with the Smiths, and still love this Manchester guy who with Morrissey set the world afire in the 1980s. Marr is not a natural singer, and it was only with the release of the Healers album that he took to singing, but on ‘The Messenger’ he has nailed it. The doors to The Institute open as it is starting to get cold again. F.U.R.S, a three piece fronted by a charming young lady, open up, and this is followed by a DJ set from Johnny Marr’s P.A. from what I imagine is Johnny's own collection to remind us of how we got where we are. It is a good selection of songs by punk bands and also throws in tracks from a few 80’s groups such as Echo & The Bunnymen. The intro tape from a 60’s TV theme announces that the show is about to start, and the crowd cheer loudly, greeting what ‘NME’ have called a “God like Genius.” ‘Right Thing Right’ opens the set as well as the album. It is a song that is worthy of the glory days of the Who, a song that builds up and shouts, “I am back and now listen.” It instantly sets the scene and the pace. There is a reason why Marr soundtracked my youth, and here he proves why. The Smiths’ ‘Stop Me If Your Think You Heard This One Before’ is a surprise second number, and for much of the crowd it will be the first time they have seen one of its authors perform the song. The whole crowd sings along, every word, arms in the air. ‘Upstarts’ follows, which was the album's first proper single and came out after ‘The Messenger’, a DJ sampler for the album, was released late last year. ‘Upstarts’ took a while for me to get into, but it is a catchy, clever number that has that jangling sound which is familiar in Marr’s music. ‘Sun and Moon’ follows, and has almost a prog rock sound and something of a dubby feel. It works well though, and has a near rock opera sound. It is only before the fifth song, that Johnny starts chatting to the crowd. He is very friendly, and tells us that he likes the venue and it's good to be in Birmingham. It is again something of a shock to see ‘Forbidden City’ in the set. It was a number that was a hit single for one of his first post-Smiths bands Electronic, and even minus Bernard Sumner still sounds magical. ‘European Me’ has a slow-paced flow to it before it truly launches itself onto us, but is another highlight from ‘The Messenger’. ‘London’, another Smiths number, again is a surprise. A fast track from a John Peel Session which was originally released as a 12" B-side, it has the whole crowd going crazy, while this version is even chunkier then the original. ‘Lockdown’ has a story to it, which Marr introduces to us by saying that it was inspired by listening to a guy knocking English culture. This is a song, therefore, that sticks up for the working classes. ‘The Messenger’ won me over when I won it on eBay as a one track promo CD. It remains magical and special to me. ‘Generate! Generate!’ keeps the pace at running speed, while ‘Say Demesne’ builds up like the first few pages of a great novel and vocally has an almost dirty sound. After these three tracks from the new album, ‘Big Mouth Strikes Again’ has the whole floor bouncing along to it. It is faster than the original but equally sublime. ‘Word Starts Attack’ ends ‘The Messenger’ and is a good follow-up to this Smiths classic. ‘New Town Velocity’, is one of my favourite album tracks, and, heartfelt and warm, reduces me to that twenty-something Smiths fan that I will always be. ‘I Want the Heartbeat’, another track from ‘The Messenger’, closes the main set and is a fast little rocker It is Saturday night. Everyone is happy, and so are the band which features two members of Haven for whom Marr produced both of their albums. They return to the stage, and launch just into a number not on the set list, a superb version of the Clash's ‘I Fought the Law,’, before the guitar rings out to the tune of an extended version of Electronic's ‘Getting Away With It’ Finally there is the knee trembler that is the Smiths ‘How Soon is Now?’ for which the crowd goes even more crazy, and then the closing number, ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’, One of the best gigs that I have ever been to! The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Marie Hazelwood.

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Johnny Marr - Institute, Birmingham, 16/3/2013

Johnny Marr - Institute, Birmingham, 16/3/2013

Johnny Marr - Institute, Birmingham, 16/3/2013

Johnny Marr - Institute, Birmingham, 16/3/2013

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