Johnny Marr: The Ritz, Manchester

We’ve seen a lot of ‘comebacks’ of late, haven’t we? Some of them inducing cringe and discomfort. Overweight middle-aged men strutting up and down stages before an ocean of receding hairlines and bad trainers, reminiscent of what may have once been, somewhere back in the eighties.

Allow me to start by assuring you that this is not one of occasions. Johnny Marr was, and still is the coolest man in Manchester, and possibly the world.

I’m at the Ritz to witness seminal side-man to a long list of nationally adored frontmen take centre stage. This, however, is not the first time as many have falsely reported. Johnny, a couple of years ago, recorded and toured with ‘The Healers’, a band he was the vocalist and songwriting force for. We all seem to have forgotten about that, possibly because it wasn’t actually very good? Sorry Mr. Marr, sir. I put that out of my head. 

Marr is majestic with entrance, he greets us with a raised Fender Jaguar and the band  pound into first song ‘The Right Thing Right’. If you haven’t heard Johnny’s new stuff, and you have any reservations about doing so, stop being soft. It’s brilliant, genuinely. It is a little more hard-hitting than one might expect, more post-punk and industrial than the Smiths yet less trashy and edgy than the Cribs, but most importantly, and probably very purposefully, it sounds amazing live.

Johnny’s second choice is Smiths classic ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’. Very clever, see what you did there. We embrace it and we unite in voice. Speaking of voice…

It would be criminal for me to write about Johnny Marr and not mention his guitar wizardry, but we all know about that, we know that there’s literally nobody better than him. Despite being a guitarist myself, it isn’t particularly his hands I am paying closest attention to. I think it would be fair to say that Johnny Marr is not a natural born singer, the vocals on his album carefully compressed and double-tracked for clout. I am eager to uncover how this will translate in a live setting, especially during some of my, and I’m sure most of our, favourite ever songs. 

He absolutely nails it. Every bit of it perfect. There’s isn’t a raised eyebrow or sharp intake of breath through the teeth of Manchester this evening. Next up is new single ‘Upstarts’. 

When you consider the sheer unaccountable magnitude and importance of the songs that Johnny has written with the Smiths, and how key they are to Manchester culture, it is definitely worth noting that the songs from the ‘The Messenger’ are in no way dwarfed by that. ‘Upstarts’, in particular had the audience beaming, belting and bellowing the lyrics as much as the more established works from his gleaming past.  

Time passes and we are treated to more from the latest record, carefully wedged between undeniable classics including Electronic’s ‘Forbidden City’ and the Smiths’ ‘London’. 

A tender moment of the show now, Johnny explains that the Ritz is the venue in which he became a professional musician, back in the eighties. ‘I was playing in some band, you won’t have heard of them’. ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’. I have never seen the Ritz more animated. The momentum is maintained with three more newbies, ‘Word Starts Attack’, ‘New Town Velocity’ and ‘I Want the Heartbeart’. 

The lights are down, band exits stage left. While I’ve mentioned the lights, actually, may I just congratulate the lighting engineer on a fine job. The stage was visually brilliant. 

My peers and I begin a chorus of ‘Johnny, Johnny!’ and looking around the room I notice that at least half of the audience are far too young to have ever seen the Smiths, me included. Regardless, we are Johnny’s generation and he returns wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘Generate! Generate! Generate!’ upon it. 

Bizarrely, yet brilliantly, the first choice of encore song is Crickets classic, famously covered by the Clash ‘I Fought the Law’. Then we are presented with, dare I say, a better version of Electronic’s ‘Getting Away With It’, and that’s when things get serious.

I’m not ashamed to tell you that I felt a lump in my throat and twinge in my eye during ‘How Soon is Now’, but it was in final song ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’, the second chorus to be precise, that a couple of real, salty little man tears escape from my eyes and flee down my cheeks. Oh dear. Is that really so strange?