Last night, Johnny Marr, the tireless guitarist and troubadour who made a name for himself in The Smiths, concluded a 2013 tour at the Culture Room, a jaunt he said began all the way back in February. Along the way, he celebrated his 50th birthday – he was born on Halloween, appropriately enough for a guy who spent decades recording with goth-ish bands – while striking out on his own as a “solo” artist, supporting the very first album released under his name and his name only.

Marr was touring behind his excellent new release “The Messenger,” and he played almost all of it at his sardine-packed Culture Room appearance, supported by a stellar three-piece band. The album is spacey, driving and groovalicious, closer at times to Radiohead and The Happy Mondays than The Smiths, and it was a pleasure to see Marr play music that was obviously so personal to him, after so many years of playing second fiddle to charismatic frontmen.

But he’s still a lead guitarist at heart, and when he wasn’t singing, he kept the most challenging parts for himself in dynamic solos. He never appeared more blissed-out than when losing himself in the swirling rhythms of “Say Demesne” or Pogoing up and down for a solid minute while shredding away on “Word Starts Attack.”

That said, these were not the songs that packed the room. After a few tunes, Marr asked the audience how many of them had heard “The Messenger.” A number of hands went up, and Marr retorted, “Thanks, you lying bastards.” It was obvious that this audience was much hungrier for The Smiths, and Marr delivered six of their songs – more than Morrissey is keen to perform at many of his concerts – each of them tearing the roof off the place. During “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” the enthusiasm and crowd participation was so high that you could barely hear Marr’s vocals, which captured the spirit of the songs without trying to imitate Morrissey’s croon (or his ego). During the encore, we got a spectacular version of “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” with lovely opening act Meredith Sheldon joining the band to share lead vocal duties with Marr.

As great as Marr’s solo music is, it’s frankly hard to compete with tracks like that; it’s like hearing Paul McCartney plays a Wings set with just a few Beatles tunes sprinkled in. If he decided, next year, to embark on a tour of all Smiths songs – assuming he could do so, contractually – I’m sure nobody would object.

 

SET LIST

 

  1. Right Right Thing
  2. Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before
  3. Upstarts
  4. Sun & Moon
  5. The Crack Up
  6. Panic
  7. New Town Velocity
  8. Lockdown
  9. Say Demesne
  10. Generate! Generate!
  11. Bigmouth Strikes Again
  12. Word Starts Attack
  13. I Want the Heartbeat
  14. How Soon is Now?

ENCORE

  1. Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
  2. The Hop
  3. I Fought the Law (The Clash)
  4. Getting Away With It (Electronic)
  5. There is a Light That Never Goes Out