There is no support tonight. There are lots of people in the crowd, there are quite a few folk outside hoping to somehow pick up a ticket but nobody appears on stage until Johnny Marr’s band members file out of that dark little hole in the brickwork at the back, followed by the cool, mod-style figure of Marr himself. Not since Miles Kane have I seen somebody strut out with such a sense of owning the place and he doesn’t waste any time in getting stuck into the first three or four songs – tracks from the new album The Messenger, with the kind of rule-the-world attitude that is difficult take your eyes off of.
The room is packed with fans well versed in the various different projects Marr has been involved in; The The, The Cribs, Modest Mouse but there is an overwhelming anticipation for the moment when he fires off the first few bars of one of the many Smiths songs that he brought the world when he was one of the main architects of some of the best loved music of the 80’s. What we are being showered with, however, is nothing like anything The Smiths released – it is more aggressive, ballsier and very like Miles Kane actually.
It rocks and Johnny rocks and the shiny Fender amps glisten under the lighting rig and the sound is good (not surprising when you consider the rumours of a sound check that started at lunchtime) but so far the crowd aren’t exactly being worked up into a frenzy. Yes, there is a big cheer when we are told how cool the Brude is by the coolest guy in the room – of course there’s a cheer, Johnny Marr has just poured praise on our favourite musical cave – and there is a shift in the noise when the first of several of tonight’s Smiths tunes is rolled out – but it really isn’t too much more than a hefty ripple. It’s strange, maybe more beer is needed, maybe this is just how fans of Morrisey & Co. are?
I decide this subdued approach to being in front of an indie legend has distracted me long enough and I allow myself to become transfixed by the chorus-saturated guitar riffs that are flowing out from the mountain of attitude up on stage.
“This one’s called That London” he says, with a cheeky smirk, the crowd turning the noise up slightly in response to the assumed fact that they are about to bear witness to a tune that lists our capital’s flaws. Their peaked interest is met with a song that builds the energy up again with solid riffs strapped to a pounding rhythm section – the band are under no illusions as to who is in charge though. Marr controls everything – his on stage colleagues watching for his signals for changes or when to come in. Don’t get me wrong, they are a very tight band – well rehearsed and coolly comfortable with the set – but they are very much there as a living back drop for the main man.
The evening strides on and the music and the beer are consumed eagerly by the audience until there is a slightly awkward moment when a woman in the shadows calls out for Johnny to tell her husband that he loves him – this is met with an unflapping response which makes no reference to loving anyone and brings this moment of excitement to a slightly damp end.
More luscious guitar antics are cranked out (at times I find myself hoping that not everybody in the crowd is taking the subtle, but expertly executed control of riffs woven around reverb and chorus for granted) as things hit top gear and people start to throw themselves a bit more into it. Then, completely unexpectedly, the mad woman in the dark pipes up again. “It’s still our anniversary Johnny! Say his name! Stuart Pickles!!” I can only imagine how invisible Stuart was trying to make himself at this point but miraculously this second outburst gets results “OK, this one’s for you…” says Johnny who, with that one, slick and professional diffusion of drunken over-exuberance shows just how good, as a live performer, all those years being exposed to the great unwashed have made him.
It takes a while but towards the end of the first part of the show it seems like everyone has finally shaken off whatever it was that was keeping them just a bit too subdued and the more familiar cycle of “good tune-crowd goes mad-good tune-crowd goes mad” is, all of a sudden, in full swing. The encore is what people have been waiting for though. Marr struts out again, po-go’s behind the microphone for a bit before seeming to give in “Oh, go on then!” before stomping into the final few tracks of the evening. As the set is drawn to a close everybody knows what’s coming – “I’ve been saving this one”. The strobing, effects-lashed opening chords of ‘How Soon Is Now?’ ring out around the Brude and we are given one last chance to watch a piece of British pop history come to life right in front of us. Finally, the sweating masses holler out a roaring cheer as the set comes to a close. Marr thanks us once again and reminds us that we’re in a “really cool” venue before disappearing into the same dark hole in the brickwork from whence he came.
I have to admit, I had my doubts about this gig – I wasn’t sure how the new material would be received or whether the set would rely on revamped versions of songs by The Smiths but, pretty impressively, Johnny Marr delivered a masterful display and his new stuff had added depth played live. The whole set had a swagger and energy level that made you feel like you could watch another hour of it without even thinking about looking at your watch. Rumour has it he’ll be playing a couple of festival slots over the summer – if you happen to be in the right place at the right when he does, I suggest you go and see some indie royalty do what he does best.