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Review: Johnny Marr – Leeds O2 Academy, 29/10/2014

Johnny Marr © Roosa Päivänsalo

Some musicians shun nostalgia, desperately trying to cling to relevance. Johnny Marr, on the other hand, has none of these worries.

Just two songs into the legendary Smiths guitarist’s headline show at the Leeds O2 Academy, the opening chords of cult hit Panic rang out, causing a bestial roar to grow from an audience of all ages. It set the tone quickly for a night of reminiscing, alongside hints of looking forward.

Childhood © Roosa Päivänsalo
Childhood © Roosa Päivänsalo

Beginning the night in style, Childhood brought their brand of large scale indie pop to the stage, laying down good foundations for the night ahead. The guitar work across the set appeared suspiciously Smiths-like and was received hungrily by the audience. Lead singer Ben Romans-Hopcraft’s smooth vocals occasionally gave way to a growl, such as in the hook-ridden As I Am, which provided some welcome ambiguity to proceedings.

During his time with The Smiths, Marr took a back-seat role to counter Morrissey’s flamboyance. Fast forward 30 years, and Johnny is running the show. A flashing, masterful light show revealed in the background the title of Marr’s new album, “Playland,” and as the man himself strolled onstage, the spotlight had clearly shifted. At times, he seemed magnetically drawn to the front of the stage, breaking any kind of barrier to share his music with an enthusiastic audience.

As a front man, Marr looked delighted to be there, and with his new solo work, he was as assured as ever. New single Easy Money, with the combination of simplicity and perfected guitar tone, has him onto a winner, and is the clearest sign of a life after The Smiths. It certainly gained a large reaction from the crowd, fuelling the noise until the end of the set. However, without a little help from his past, the performance could have easily fizzled out.

“At times he seemed magnetically drawn to the front of the stage.”

Johnny Marr © Roosa Päivänsalo
Johnny Marr © Roosa Päivänsalo

Marr’s acceptance of his previous successes was certainly a big hit with his followers, with huge responses to Bigmouth Strikes Again and Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want. With no Morrissey onstage though, he was forced to work doubly hard, with an almost visible shift in character when taking lead vocals. Despite this, there was no obvious gap that needed to be filled; each Smiths track felt in place, and Marr didn’t look remotely uncomfortable performing them.

As the set grew old, Marr appeared gaunt when bathed in white light, with the sweat on his face making him resemble a still-wet oil painting. More new material was presented, with towering numbers such as Boys Get Straight and Dynamo keeping the pulse moving. The inevitable encore was a mixture of new, old and Iggy Pop. The defining moment came when, halfway through yet another Smiths classic, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, the entire room was lit, bringing everyone even closer than before.

Much of the crowd may have attended this gig as a fan of the Smiths; many more would have left a fan of Johnny Marr.