Concert Review

Morrissey Started Something He Could Finish in Tempe

Morrissey gave us a quick scare during his Tempe concert.
Morrissey gave us a quick scare during his Tempe concert. Jim Louvau
Morrissey walked off two songs into his set at The Marquee.

He opened with a rip-roaring cover of Elvis Presley's "You'll Be Gone," the kind of power move that would certainly heat up a young, pre-Smiths Steven Patrick Morrissey's cheeks. Backed by a band wearing matching yellow "I'm Not My Type" shirts, Moz launched into a rendition of "Alma Matters." He seemed in fine voice and form, going shirtless under a single-button blazer. My friend quipped, "No wonder he's always so cold."

As the song headed toward its end, Morrissey abruptly walked offstage and left the rest of his band playing.

Anyone who buys a ticket to see Morrissey in 2017 is waiting for this moment. Coming to one of his shows is an act of faith. Maybe Moz will show up this time, or perhaps the venue will be too cold — or he'll spot somebody snapping into a Slim Jim and walk off in disgust.

In spite of the knowledge that he could bail at any time, we still come to his shows. There's something about the man and his work that makes it worth the gamble. It's a part of the thrill of seeing him. Perhaps we'll be the chosen ones. Perhaps the rock god will grace us with his presence. Perhaps we'll finally get to see why people forgive him for his flakiness.

His abrupt exit didn't seem to be planned. The rest of his band wrapped up "Alma Matters." You could see security and backstage people approaching Morrissey in the wings as he vanished into the shadows. The crowd was murmuring, and you could feel discontent rising in the room like a teakettle on the verge of boiling.

But here's the thing about acts of faith: Sometimes you're rewarded for your trouble.
Morrissey came back on. Who knows what happened backstage, or why he had darted off in the first place. What matters is that he strolled back onstage, grabbed the mic, and said, "Thank you. Let the beheading commence."

That's what he did over the next hour and a half. He served up one of the finest shows I've ever seen.

Morrissey is a true diva. He no-shows, throws fits, and cares not at all about the basic social contract that exists between audience member and performer (i.e. "I buy a ticket and you show up and do something"). But like all true divas, we forgive him because he's got the goods.

His voice sounded almost as good as it does on record. Morrissey doesn't run around or dance or strike any crazy poses. Like a chanteuse, he mostly stands and lets his voice do the talking, throwing in the occasional strange expression or hand gesture that feels like some kind of private in-joke.

He doesn't need much in the way of stagecraft because he's magnetic to watch — both arch and sincere, a star and yet all too human.

click to enlarge Morrissey performed at the Marquee Theatre on November 16. - JIM LOUVAU
Morrissey performed at the Marquee Theatre on November 16.
Jim Louvau
Whether it was inadvertently knocking the mic off the stand in "Jacky's Only Happy When She's Up on the Stage" (the look on his face was that of a high-school actor who flubbed a line in front of all his classmates) or confessing, "I can't handle this heat like you people, I'm a skinny little thing," as he sweated profusely onstage, we got to see a vulnerable side to the singer.

We also got to see him in star power mode, ripping off his shirt during the encore, stepping aside to let security keep fans from rushing the stage, and busting out his soapbox to call President Trump "Predicament Trump".

And Morrissey's got jokes, y'all.

Few things will probably make me laugh harder this week than Moz saying, "I haven't been this wet since my wedding night," before unleashing "How Soon Is Now?" on the crowd.

Charisma is all well and good, but it's nothing without songs to back it up.

Morrissey's set was a crowd-pleaser, mixing newer material (that holds up surprisingly well compared to his beloved early work) with covers, early solo songs, and a trio of Smiths classics. Anyone accusing Morrissey of being humorless hasn't heard him dust off The Smiths' "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" in concert. You can tell that the irony of Mr. No-Show singing this song isn't lost on him.

click to enlarge Morrissey served up one of the best shows we've ever seen. - JIM LOUVAU
Morrissey served up one of the best shows we've ever seen.
Jim Louvau
"How Soon Is Now?" got the biggest pop from the audience and had the night's flashiest bit of stage tech. A row of white strobe lights were triggered toward the end of the song, flickering and wobbling to match the song's signature rippling tremolo. This was also the moment when the giant gong standing behind the drummer finally got its time to shine. He pounded the hell out of that thing.

Morrissey also used videos to spice up the performance. Some of his choices were downright punk rock.

"Ganglord" was accompanied by a harrowing compilation of police brutality videos; images of the police beating and pepper-spraying humans, as well as them shooting dogs. "The Bullfighter Dies" was illustrated with, you guessed it, visceral bullfighting footage. But he also used videos to playful effect during the preshow, with a half-hour of James Brown, The New York Dolls, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and even t.A.T.u. (covering "How Soon Is Now?").

In addition to The Smiths tunes and some of the stronger cuts off his new record ("Spent the Day in Bed" is a killer track), Morrissey revealed his Pretenders fandom with a faithful cover of "Back on the Chain Gang."

He also paid tribute to his fervent Latino following, peppering some songs with Spanish horns and projecting an image of the singer wearing Day of the Dead-style makeup.

In a rare moment of ceding the spotlight, he took his keyboard player's spot at the end of "Speedway" so the keyboardist could come out to sing an impassioned bit of Morrissey music in Spanish. It was a sweet moment that could not be ruined even by the dumbasses who shouted "WE WANT MORRISSEY!" while the keys player sang.

After releasing a giant billowing cloud of red smoke on the audience and playing a stirring take on "Everyday Is Sunday," Moz closed his set with a cover of Lynne Anderson's "Rose Garden." He'd been onstage for nearly an hour and a half by that point. Expecting him to do an encore seemed like wishful thinking, but he came through.

click to enlarge Tempe got a Morrissey encore. - JIM LOUVAU
Tempe got a Morrissey encore.
Jim Louvau
The band returned to take a bow and play "Suedehead" and "Shoplifters of the World Unite" (with "Shoplifters" replaced by "Trump-shifters" in the chorus).

I'm not one of those concertgoers who looks forward to seeing Springsteen play for four hours. But Morrissey's show was so captivating that it could have gone on for another hour or two, and I would have been happy. That's how good Morrissey was tonight.

Set List

"You'll Be Gone" (Elvis Presley cover)
"Alma Matters"
"When Last I Spoke to Carol"
"I Wish You Lonely"
"The Bullfighter Dies"
"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" (The Smiths)
"Kiss Me a Lot"
"When You Open Your Legs"
"World Peace Is None of Your Business"
"How Soon Is Now?" (The Smiths)
"Back on the Chain Gang" (Pretenders cover)
"Jacky's Only Happy When She's Up on the Stage"
"Jack the Ripper"
"Home Is a Question Mark"
"Spent the Day in Bed"
"I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris"
"Everyday Is Like Sunday"
"Rose Garden" (Lynn Anderson cover)

"Shoplifters of the World Unite" (The Smiths)

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Morrissey at The Marquee Theatre in Tempe.

The Crowd: It was clearly a date night because there were a lot of couples in the audience. There were a lot of people, period. It was packed so tight that you could almost hear the Marquee moan in anguish. The types of people varied wildly. There were plenty of bespectacled Smiths fans in anoraks, of course, but there were also metal dudes wearing spiked jackets, a gaggle of Goths, and families bringing the kiddies along.

Overheard: Two of my favorite non-getting wet quotables of the night were:

Morrissey (introducing "The Bullfighter Dies"): "Here's a song about a longstanding Spanish tradition: murder."

My friend (commenting on Moz's 'doo): "Wrong time to be rocking the Richard Spencer haircut, dude."

Random Notebook Dump: Judging from his command of the stage, his deep body of good tunes, his ability to connect with audiences across multiple generations, and his skill at making old standards his own, Morrissey is one of the only "alt" legends I can think of who could seamlessly transition into a Vegas residency. Imagine it: elderly hipsters taking trips to Vegas to see Moz sing all the hits with his bare, hairy chest draped in gold chains like an asexual Tom Jones. They'll get smashed on complimentary slot machine cocktails and toss gladiolas at his feet until security escorts them out of the showroom.

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Ashley Naftule