Saturday, March 21
“I can smell your draft,” Morrissey announced upon taking the stage at the Bowery Ballroom, the smallest New York venue the former Smiths emo-crooner has played in easily Googleable internet memory. The 550-capacity Bowery Ballroom is a step down for the Pope of Mope — last time he was in town, Moz was originally supposed to play Madison Square Garden (but ended up at Hammerstein, post-cancellations); later this week he’ll be at Carnegie Hall (and Webster, but y’know). At first, I figured he was making some obsolete quip about our dank Lower East Side hygiene. Four songs in, as a plume of green smoke from the front rows climbed to the rafters, the man’s point was unmistakable: “I’m not really used to this smell, and I’m warning you, it could have an interesting effect on me. If I were you, I’d stand back.”
Morrissey’s superfans mostly took their hero’s advice, even though they’re notorious huggers. And as for interesting effects, Moz was in his hoped-for charming form, chatting and gesticulating throughout a disappointingly brief 80-minute set. Current album Years of Refusal is the best since 1994’s Vauxhall and I, and the evening’s songs were just about evenly split between YoR, 2004’s You Are the Quarry, older Morrissey solo output, and the Smiths. (2006’s Ringleader of the Tormentors wuz robbed.) His longtime backing band, including bolo-tie-rocking guitarist Boz Boorer, gave tunes both new and old a muscular glam-rockabilly crunch. If intimacy was the draw, charisma and showmanship were the rewards. Also: middle-aged male semi-nudity.
Forget the increasingly dignified resonance of that singing voice, how about the sounds Morrissey makes? “Everybody’s la-ha-ha-ha-ughing,” he hiccuped on Vauxhall‘s “Billy Budd.” “Urrrrghhh!!!!” he bellowed during fiery YAtQ single-as-polemic “Irish Blood, English Heart”. On the same album’s Nancy Sinatra-covered slow jam (such as it is) “Let Me Kiss You”, Moz practically barked like a dog, tossing the first of three shirts into the crowd on the words “you see someone that you physically despise.” He growled insults on YoR‘s midtempo chugger “Sorry Doesn’t Help”, attacking “fake humility” only a few seconds after brilliantly brushing off creepy but heartfelt fan-worship with: “Is he making fun of me? He will, one day.” Backed by upright bass and accordion on “Why Don’t You Find Out for Yourself” Morrissey punched the air with a lusty “oooph!”
Then again, Morrissey’s voice has arguably never sounded richer than on the new record, and Saturday night’s show demonstrated that’s no fluke. The 49-year-old performer romped through the endless “don’t give me anymore”s on YoR opener “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” with nary a gasp; his pretty a capella intro to lone encore “First of the Gang to Die” — the YAtQ track that is probably his biggest 2000s-era “hit” — showed he can do soft nuance, too. The band’s punched-up power chords could start to run together at times, but they helped freshen up Smiths classics like “This Charming Man” (first song of the night) and “Ask”. “It’s macho military might that will bring us together,” Morrissey sang at the end of the latter, changing the lyrics. The star of a stunning “How Soon Is Now?”, other than Moz’s initial request for a “dead cat” (“I’d like to see if I can swing it”), was a gong, crashing again and again over the effects-washed final chords. Biggest complaint: He didn’t play more songs, especially from the new album (especially “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore”).
The “possible greatness of any pop artist is in the greatness of their influences,” Morrissey declared before early-1990s b-side “The Loop”, which suggested a few of the singer’s own influences with its bright guitar twang and shuffling rhythm. Videos featuring Moz heroes — including early UK rock’n’roller Vince Taylor and the New York Dolls — were projected onto the curtain after a solid if uninventive opening set of post-Arctic Monkeys Britrock by Manchester’s the Courteneers. And Morrissey dedicated “Seasick, Yet Still Docked” — a slow, self-lacerating number from 1992’s Your Arsenal — to classic gangster-movie actors Billy Hallop, George Raft, and “all the great performers of the Bowery — all of which you have obviously forgotten.” Hey man, a $75 ticket price — before Ticketmaster and/or scalper surcharges — doesn’t guarantee connoisseurship.
No one makes melodramatic self-mockery more appealing. “I’m the type who just can’t be loved,” Morrissey murmured at one point. Later, after introducing the band, he contemplated aloud: “Who am I? Well, that is a question that many have died trying to answer. I can only be identified on a slab, by the scars of pain.” The shtick’s not all self-mockery, either: “In a few days we’ll be in a slightly posher part of town, so obviously none of you will be there. Nice meeting you.” — Marc Hogan
Morrissey plays Webster Hall, Wednesday, March 25, and Carnegie Hall, Thursday, March 26.