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More than 25 years after the split of iconic British indie-rockers The Smiths, Morrissey remains one of the most intriguing figures in rock. Not only did the label-less crooner manage to sell out the nearly 20,000-seat Staples Center on Friday night, he shut down McDonalds and was inexplicably introduced by “McDreamy,” Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey.
In the week leading up to the show, Morrissey, or Moz as he’s know to his fans, made headlines. He beefed with Jimmy Kimmel for booking the redneck reality-show hunters of Duck Dynasty on the same show he was supposed to appear on, called out Paul McCartney for supporting the Queen and bragged that he had the power to make Staples go meatless, something even the ex-Beatle couldn’t do.
On Friday night, Moz ignored those foes and set his sights on a new target — Beyonce, noting that her choice of handbags has led to the extinction of the rhinos, before launching into The Smiths’ pro-vegetarian number “Meat is Murder.”
For the rest of the 90-minute show, however, Morrissey wallowed in his own misery and demonstrated how he is the master of the collective moan with captivating performances of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” His songs about depression, self-loathing and alienation have tapped into a huge audience over the years and the crowd inside Staples sang along to practically every word in an act of communal catharsis. And it appears to be a symbiotic relationship. At one point, Moz gave the microphone to the loving masses, so they could say a few words. One chap thanked the singer “for keeping us sane.” Morrissey enthusiastically countered, “I want to thank you for keeping me sane!”
Backed by a crack, if somewhat anonymous five-piece band, Moz kicked off his set with The Smiths’ rallying cry “Shoplifters of The World Unite,” updating the line of the 1987 British hit about “a future war … on Channel Four” with the inclusion of “Syria.” What followed was a mix of his solo material and Smiths’ classics, with one curveball — a cover of Frankie Valli‘s 1969 melodramatic hit “To Give (The Reason I Love),” which Morrissey introduced as “an Italian song.”
Although a bout with Barrett’s esophagus, a bleeding ulcer and a concussion forced him to scrap nearly all the dates on his current tour (a special show Saturday at Hollywood High was added this week), he appeared to be in fine shape, both physically and vocally, taking only a brief break during “Meat is Murder” for a shirt change while the band ratcheted up the tension with feedback and floor toms. Sure, his hair is a little thinner and grayer around the temples and he’s put on a few pounds over the years, but Morrissey is still quite a performer. He paced the stage with the microphone and its cord as his only prop, save for a pair of maracas employed on “You’re the One for Me Fatty,” and brought the drama and humor to nearly every song, preceding each number with a few words of wisdom. Before launching into a marvelous version of The Smiths’ classic “Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” given new life in the 2009 film (500) Days of Summer, Morrissey offered, “I have found the best way to avoid ending your life as a bitter wreck is to start out as one.” In the middle of “Let Me Kiss You,” he ripped off his shirt while singing the lyrics, “But then you open your eyes and you see something that you physically despise,” revealing his middle-aged torso before leaving the stage.
As the show progressed, Morrissey picked up steam, with the band giving a muscular approach to “How Soon Is Now?” and his love letter to Los Angeles gang culture, “First of the Gang to Die.” For the encore of “The Boy with The Thorn in His Side,” several loving fans tried to make it to the stage to embrace their hero, with one finally succeeding before the song’s end. It was a perfect climax to a night of longing.
Of course, those lucky enough to see The Smiths couldn’t help but long for having guitarist and songwriting partner Johnny Marr once again at Morrissey’s side. He’s recently returned to the scene and just released his best solo work to date, and is embracing his past by playing and singing Smiths songs. Marr will be in Southern California next month for Coachella, but it remains to be seen if he can match Morrissey mastery of the performance. It’s your move, Johnny.
Opening the show with an hour-long set was Patti Smith, whose legendary standing and mix of spirituality and mysticism seemed lost on much of the crowd. Her set included opener “Dancing Barefoot,” recent should-have-been-hit “April Fool,” and the classic “Because the Night,” which she dedicated to her late husband, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, on what Smith noted was their wedding anniversary. By the time she closed with her rousing cover of “Gloria,” she had won over about a quarter of the crowd. Not a complete triumph, but a step in the right direction.
Shoplifters of the World Unite
Irish Blood, English Heart
You Have Killed Me
Action Is My Middle Name
That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris
Meat Is Murder
Ouija Board, Ouija Board
November Spawned A Monster
To Give (The Reason I Live)
How Soon Is Now?
Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
Everyday Is Like Sunday
Let Me Kiss You
First Of The Gang To Die
The Boy With The Thorn In His Side
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