By John Curley
London’s O2 Brixton Academy has hosted many memorable shows during its three decades as a rock-concert venue. Johnny Marr’s spectacular show on Thursday, October 23rd should be added to that list.
The O2 Brixton Academy is a beautiful, ornate venue that dates back to 1929. It was once a large movie palace and started its second life as a rock-concert venue in 1981 as the Brixton Fair Deal. The venue took on its current name in 1983. The sightlines at the Brixton Academy are great because the floor in front of the stage slopes upward as it goes toward the back of the hall. I attended the show with a friend, and we stood in front of the soundboard in line with center stage. The view was perfect. The sound in the hall for Marr’s set was just right, though it must be said that the sound mix for Childhood, the opening band, was too loud for a venue the size of Brixton Academy.
Following Childhood’s 30-minute opening set, Marr took the stage right on schedule at 9 p.m. On this tour, Marr is supporting his recently released second solo album, which is titled Playland. As Marr and his band tore into the first song of the set, which was Playland’s title track, lights on the stage spelled out the word “PLAYLAND” one letter at a time, and then would flash on and off at different times throughout the concert.
Marr’s set was a perfect mix of solo tunes and songs from his past with The Smiths and Electronic. As the songs from Marr’s days with The Smiths always get the biggest reaction at his shows, it was no surprise that the crowd erupted when Marr and his extremely talented backing band played The Smiths’ “Panic” as the second song of the set. Many fists were thrust into the air and more than a few audience members on the floor in front of the stage were crowd surfing. It was thrilling to witness, and really gave one a sense that we were going to see a knockout performance. And we did.
Marr has crafted the tracks on his two solo albums so that they can be replicated faithfully in concert, and that really showed with the third song in the set, “Upstarts” from Marr’s first solo album. While the material from Marr’s days with The Smiths still gets the biggest reaction at his shows, several of the solo songs are starting to become crowd favorites. Marr’s performance of “Easy Money,” the fourth song in the set and the lead single from Playland, was greeted with a loud roar from the crowd. “Easy Money” is a terrific piece of power pop and, quite honestly, the best single that I’ve heard so far in 2014.
“New Town Velocity,” a track from The Messenger, Marr’s first solo album, is probably the song from his solo work that has become the biggest crowd favorite. It’s about the day that Marr decided, at age 15, to leave school. Marr’s performance of the song at Brixton Academy, the sixth song in the set, received quite a hand from the crowd.
The remainder of the main set of the show mixed Marr’s solo works with songs by The Smiths and Electronic. The Smiths’ “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” and, particularly, “Bigmouth Strikes Again” got thunderous cheers from the crowd. Marr’s guitar work on “Bigmouth Strikes Again” was jaw dropping. Marr’s performance of Electronic’s “Getting Away With It” was the highlight of the show. It was perfect. The main set closed with an extended performance of The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” that got a huge roar from the crowd.
As great as the main set of the show was, Marr reserved the best bits for the encore. In a bit of cheeky humor, the lights onstage that had spelled out “PLAYLAND” changed to read “JOHNNY F---IN MARR” in the runup to the encore. The encore opened with a terrific take on The Smiths’ “Still Ill” and then segued into the new solo track “Dynamo.” Then, to the seeming surprise of everyone in the venue, Marr brought Noel Gallagher onstage to join the band on guitar for the remainder of the show. Marr, Gallagher, and company then did a rip-roaring cover of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” followed by a scintillating version of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” to close out the performance. Marr then said his goodbyes and left the stage to a thunderous ovation from the crowd.
Marr has grown in confidence in his fairly new role as a frontman since last year’s tour in support of The Messenger. And Marr’s show is very interesting from a visual standpoint because he is all over the stage playing his slash-and-burn guitar parts when he doesn’t have to be behind the microphone. My friend that attended the show with me had never seen Marr live before, and she remarked after the concert about how impressed she was with Marr’s spryness. Marr, who turned 51 on Halloween, is a vegan and regular runner. The benefits of that lifestyle showed during his energetic performance at Brixton Academy.
Marr’s terrific backing band features James Doviak (guitars, keyboards, and backing vocals), Iwan Gronow (bass and backing vocals), and Jack Mitchell (drums). Marr and his band played a main set consisting of 15 songs and a four-song encore. They were onstage for 90 minutes.
The set list was as follows:
Panic (The Smiths song)
New Town Velocity
Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before (The Smiths song)
Back In The Box
Speak Out Reach Out
Bigmouth Strikes Again (The Smiths song)
Boys Get Straight
Getting Away With It (Electronic song)
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (The Smiths song)
Still Ill (The Smiths song)
Lust For Life (cover of Iggy Pop song, featuring Noel Gallagher)
How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths song, featuring Noel Gallagher)