The Smiths were not always my favourite band. Even during their active period between 1984-1988, as a younger pre-high school version of my current music nerd self, I had huge respect for what Marr and Morrissey were doing artistically and sonically, but it was simply just not where I was keeping my musical brain at the time. I rediscovered and embraced The Smiths in the early to mid 90's and felt better equipped to appreciate how important and influential they had been. They have now been my favourite band for about twenty years, but Morrissey's solo work has always been a bit of a different (well treated) animal.
Living in a medium sized Canadian city, slightly off the beaten path, means only occasionally having major well known artists show up to play in your town. Add to that a singer who will no longer play shows in your country until the seal hunt is abolished, and it basically means you have to travel somewhere else if you want to see Morrissey in 2012 (the irony is not lost on having to leave Canada to see Moz in the U.S. given the similar if not even shittier track record of animal treatment in the States). I could say seeing Morrissey perform live was a life long dream, but it's probably more genuine to call it a dream of sorts that was a long time in the making.
Friday night in Boston was Morrissey's first show of his 2012 American tour. The venue was Wang Theatre. A perfect setting as it turns out for an evening with my generation's finest singer and lyricist. Even before joining the ranks of legitimate Morrissey fans, I was acutely aware of how fanatical his diehards were. Friday night was confirmation of this fact, but also how generally respectful and engaged they are as concert goers. It was refreshing to be at a show where many were enjoying beers, but were there not to party or to get wasted, but to listen to his words and dance to the wonderful melodies. It was also nice to see that 1980's originated independent Brit music has not completely skipped generations and there are at least some under 30's plugged into and keeping the spirit of The Smiths and Morrissey alive and well.
There is always anticipation, and to some extent trepidation, when speculating about a setlist, especially when it feels like your one shot at seeing a really special artist you have wanted to see for such a long time. Friday night's mix of Morrissey's songs was hardly disappointing, but perhaps fascinating. Many aging artists fall into the trap of blasting through "the hits". Fair game. In many cases that is exactly what their paying fans are looking for. Morrissey however, was an "alternative" artist before the term lost all meaning. What alternative did and should mean is to not do what is typically expected by most people. The set started down a very cool and comfortable path, then evolved into something even less obvious. Brilliant I say.
The show kickstarted with "You Have Killed Me" from 2006's Ringleader of The Tormentors. Morrissey's voice was solid, having clearly lost next to no range over the years, and the band sounded incredibly tight right out of the gate, all of them of course wearing shirts emblazoned with Ringling Beats Animals. Next was the most pleasant surprise to these ears with the choice of "Alma Matters." Maladjusted has always been a bit underrated in my opinion, but this is one of my three favourite Morrissey songs and I was not expecting to hear it on this night. There was definitely some jumping up and down and ear to ear grinning, I cannot lie. Similarly was the inclusion next of "You're The One For Me, Fatty." The set continued initially with what I would describe as a nice balance of songs from his full solo catalogue and bits of The Smiths. Nothing too obscure, but no huge tracks except perhaps the full audience participated "Everyday Is Like Sunday."
Then a subtle shift happened, where the songs continued to be strong and all naturally fluid within the set, but more on the obscure, heavier and less jingly side of Moz's work. Cool lesser known Vauxhall and I songs like "Spring-Heeled Jim" and "Speedway". A song like "Fantastic Bird", which to my knowledge was only on the 2009 Sony version of Southpaw Grammar. New songs like "People Are The Same Everywhere" and "Scandinavia", which I don't believe have ever been released, but were unveiled during tour and tv spots in 2011. Throw in a Frankie Valli cover and it is fair to say that anyone who was dying for a greatest hits show might have been disappointed. My sense though, is most of us just wanted to see one of the most charming, clever, passionate, and respectful artists of all time share his words and melodies, regardless of which ones he decided on for this evening.
Of course, he took the opportunity to drop "Meat Is Murder" into the set, accompanied by a Peta prepared video graphic of animal slaughter and mistreatment. Even for those of us who already subscribe to doing our best with a cruelty free lifestyle and even with the risk of preaching to the choir, it was an important and uncomfortable reality to sit through and a reminder that this man was waving the animal rights flag well before it was at all acceptable to do so. I desperately wanted to be somewhere else during those five minutes even hearing him sing such a great song, but I am so glad he has stuck to his guns on this issue, even if like so many of us, his hypocrisies are occasionally on display for all.
The Smiths material was perfectly chosen and placed over the evening, and not necessarily what people were there to hear. Morrissey has been making music on his own almost seven times as long as he was in The Smiths. Not all of it has hit the mark, but again much like this show, he has never made the same record twice and he has never produced music that was particularly representative of what was popular or making other artists rich at a particular point in time. Ending the night with a one song encore of "How Soon Is Now?" was perfect. Right down to what should have been the ridiculous and embarrassing spectacle of a 50+ year old man ripping off his shirt and throwing it into the audience.
The lasting images I will take with me however epitomize how Morrissey is often misunderstood. I will think of him handing the mic to audience members to share "a word", knowing they could be trusted to be respectful and brief. I will think of him allowing (much to the chagrin of Wang Theatre security) fans to steal a reciprocated hug if they were able to get on stage. Mostly I will think of him, unlike so many bloated aging redundant artists from his era and beyond, as smart, classy, stylish, gracious and appreciative that so many people still adore him. Morrissey has always been the best at making people feel okay about not being alone in how they feel sometimes, in a world that makes it tough to be okay with feeling like Morrissey does.
It was a perfect evening, full of perfect songs, by a perfect artist.