Johnny Marr at The Phoenix in Toronto, October 19th 2018
The hardest ticket to get of the last two years in hand thanks to the kindness of others, we make our way to Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre early, a place rich in 80s and 90s history for us, one which offers a variety of experiences depending on what time you arrive and where you plant yourself and how you manage those first moments. The merch table is a blur as we attempt to “coolly” gallop the hallway into the main venue and manage to secure a spot at the front, where our photographer will shoot the first three songs from the crowd. There, the best front crowd we’ve seen in years gathers amiably, shoulder to shoulder, no pushing, like it’s indeed our youthful days again, when nothing could sink our spirits, floating on Doc Martins’ indestructible souls before the British bands that were all we cared about.
But we never saw Johnny Marr or The Smiths, back then. And no one we know in this city ever did, either. It’s the stuff of legend.
The new era of Johnny Marr’s music and the band he’s built over a decade or so is like everything the uber-cool and laid-back iconic guitarist has ever done in his musical life over the decades: seemingly effortless, but the end result of a lot of hard work built upon a foundation of an innate and original talent. Now on his third solo record, Call the Comet, the singular guitarist whose sound is the most identifiable in the history of British Indie has grown into the front man he always could have been, but perhaps preferred not to. Timing is everything, and no one knows that more than a brilliant musician.
Marr has launched his solo career with care and grace, something much missed and sadly devalued in the world of music today. Seeing his 2014 Toronto show for second solo album Playland, jaws around the room dropped to find what a spectacular live singer he was, something neither assumed or even needed when one can play and compose like he does, and with the music he’s given us. On the long wait for his return, the music, band’s vocabulary, and vocal comfort level has grown exponentially on display tonight, as evidenced by the current setlist, now equally divided between musical periods past and present, Smiths and Electronic songs sitting comfortably next to the solo material, each fitting astoundingly well together. A Johnny Marr show could take many turns through the projects he’s been part of since The Smiths era, all of which would be welcome and interesting (The The, Modest Mouse, Billy Bragg to name a few) but this tour is (coolly) about centering and grounding the Johnny Marr narrative in the larger musical landscape. On that front, Marr has always mostly let the music do the talking while other artists noisily clamored for control of a recent history which is much misunderstood. Those in the know will observe the delightful and just slightly pointed inclusion of the beautiful “Getting Away With It” in the set tonight, a song slowly decoded by fans who wanted to know more about Marr’s point of view on then and there and them.
An issue near and dear to our mandate at DISARM is to question and correct the accepted idea that music from certain eras and genres is “classic” and important while others, particularly the 1980s and 1990s, is just “retro” or trendy. And dismissed as unimportant. This lie persists well past the onerous commercialized Baby Boomer tripe of our youth that devalued classic music for my generation, and into the now-retrospective period of narrowly and cynically defined nostalgia for our beloved 80s, one that is continually reduced to terrible wigs, completely silly wardrobes and one or two perfect songs they don’t deserve. Almost no one gets it right (I’m looking at you, Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why). While The Smiths enjoyed the precarious & fraught position of media darlings in their brief ascendancy in the early 80s, and a universal mourning period followed (of the kind the media loves even more than christening “Best Ofs”), the social media age has flattened and reduced so much understanding about a generation’s art form into memes – the lowest form of humour, commentary and contemporary fandom.
The greatness and originality of the music made by The Smiths (in an incredibly short period) is untouchable but is something hard for outsiders to place in today’s faux nostalgia which never could make commercial fodder of this music, these artists, or indeed, an entire youth culture movement that extended into the early 90s. To those of us self-raised on it, who’ve followed the work of Johnny Marr through to Electronic, his guest appearances across music and through to his formalized solo career of today, there are almost no words to articulate the joy of music that says what we struggled to as teenagers, silently supernova-ing inside, hearts breaking daily, that scored our operatics on the front porches of our suburbias, as we spun, untethered, out into whatever of the world we could afford to see, understanding so little about the specifics of British life but knowing innately what it meant to dance our legs down to the knees alone in upstairs rooms of ugly houses in nowhere places, and to want to flee.
Johnny Marr’s music was and is the sound of mobility despite what you might have been given and resistance in the face of oppression. He holds the guitar as lightly as a key, one that unlocks everything inside a generation, and now, a next generation who has been raised right. There are mothers and their grown daughters in this crowd, singing along to the words old and new. It is a joy to see. Marr arrives on stage without fanfare, launching immediately into “The Tracers” followed breathlessly into “Bigmouth Strikes Again”. And therein lies the tone of the evening. It’s all here, it’s all good, and it will all be present. This is not a man who has ever liked to be idle, a man with much to say (musically), and much to do, a bundle of controlled, directed energy, a light in the darkness. The only nostalgia is that your teenage self feels healed note by note, no longer sad and reeling, but here, alive, mere feet away, and so is he: relevant, alive, soaring vocally and musically creating sounds no one has ever been able to imitate, that are his very own language that we think belongs to us because it was long ago imprinted upon our psyches. Artists who take care of themselves and their art only improve with time, and this is an artist in his prime, free of baggage and full of life.
Marr’s band for the past few albums and years is a tight, fluid unit, made up of long time friends and musicians who’ve worked together for many years: Iwan Gronow on Bass, Jack Mitchell (both ex-Haven) and Doviak on guitar. They look just right, and they sound like a unit. Doviak switches to keys to allow us to die and return as ghosts for “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” among others, and Gronow (who gave us an interview which follows this report) handles backing vocals. As expected, recent single “Walk Into the Sea” is an expansive, anthemic tune, and there are subtle shades of The Smiths in the new record, because why wouldn’t there be? Johnny Marr is as much The Smiths as anybody, perhaps more.
Johnny’s closing words to us are “We win.” And what more needs to be said?
During Johnny Marr’s Toronto tour stop, bassist Iwan Gronow took time out before soundcheck to chat with us about the new album and the tour, which will now embark on its UK leg to close out the year. Asked about how the group came together, Gronow told us that Marr had produced music for his previous band Haven, which also included drummer Jack Mitchell, and they had worked together as far back as the period when Marr had joined Modest Mouse in the mid-aughts. The collaboration developed organically, and the group worked quickly to put together Johnny Marr’s second solo record Playland, which was partially written and recorded on the road. An impressive three years was spent touring Playland. With Call the Comet, more time was taken building the project (as the band was off the road). This is evident in the layered sounds and the big ideas explored on Call the Comet. Gronow confirms what we’ve always believed as listeners and fans “Johnny’s always looking forward.” And, as we would find out that same night “singing better than ever”, a fact never in doubt but nonetheless astounding to hear first hand because most artists can sing well or play well but few can do it all, well, at once. Gronow describes the new music perfectly: it’s “cinematic” a “complete sound” and the live show is getting tighter all the time, in that push and pull that only fellow musicians with their perfectionism that sails over our heads understands. Gronow is enjoying both the new music that he’s been part of building as a band and “the back catalogue”, a term I mull over while being gobsmacked by said catalogue in a rousing, riveting, two hours that sees our own underappreciated (but maybe gradually more appreciated) quiet genius Kevin Drew take the stage (a surprise since he was also at the New York stop) for a duet on “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” By the show’s four (!!!) song encore, we’ve had the big celebration we’ve dreamed of forever, we want nothing more than to do it all over again, but we know we’ll keep it close to us as the best intimate show we’ve ever seen in our lives.
With special thanks to Johnny Marr and Iwan Gronow.
Words by Jacqueline Howell. Photos by Dave MacIntyre