Morrissey, on stage at Glasgow’s Hydro, Saturday 21st March. Photo courtesy of Darren Hargreaves (@springbearddaz).
The insidious contours of the arena gig. Skewed timbres, kinky scale. The last occasion Morrissey played these parts he eschewed the big cities for bijou, out-of-the-way places such as Dunoon and Dunfermline. His previous Glasgow gig – almost six years ago – had him resplendent in the Barrowland Ballroom, a Debbie Reynolds zapped down from the stars. And tonight: the Hydro, where the many concierge/security types are straight from the Martin Bormann school of charm, the bars feature a severe lack of cocktails, and the dimensions of the auditorium co-opt the atmosphere for a bludgeoning.
It’s the wrong venue (as we knew all along it would be) because the surroundings detract from events playing out onstage. Or if “detract” is too strong a word, it’s a setting that certainly doesn’t enhance the spectacle of a Morrissey performance.
And this is performance. The band march out from the wings. They face each other in banks of three, bow, then spring into ‘The Queen Is Dead’, Her Majesty giving us the finger from the giant screen hanging above the stage. It’s a symbolic act of ceremony indicative of robust musicality; as an album the recent World Peace Is None Of Your Business is remarkable for its buff and muscular textures, and the evening’s opening salvo – ‘Suedehead’ is up next – underlines how tight Boz, Jesse and the boys are as a proposition, the foundations across which our singer struts and preens an exercise in control.
An incredible amount of guff and conjecture is written in regards to Morrissey’s health, his inability to complete a tour without cancelling at least some dates a tired, unimaginative trope. Yet on this evidence he’s never been fitter, voice strong and true, the older material (‘Yes I Am Blind’; ‘Trouble Loves Me’, plus ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ and ‘What She Said’, two of the setlist’s other Smiths tracks) gifted extra gravitas courtesy of vocals that, like fine wine, have matured over the years. A voice grown into; to witness him in full flow, and it’s extremely difficult not to feel awed at his presence (despite all those weird arena vibes floating about. “The Hydro smells of wee-wee,” to quote a friend. “Man’s wee-wee.” A state of affairs I for once was not responsible for).
The night’s central focus is World Peace, which makes sense when you consider the parallels in assuredness between LP and performance. Portraits rendered faithfully. Elegantly. ‘Neal Cassady Drops Dead’ prowls with menace. ‘I’m Not A Man’, featuring Boz Boorer on sax, is delivered with neat, dramatic cohesion. And ‘Staircase At The University’ – very much one of the album’s peaks – is a triumph of wry and fluid proportions. The hand claps, the posture, multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Manzur scuttling out from behind the keyboards to deliver his (quite beautiful) flamenco guitar solo. Each stanza vibrates with grace and positioning; in such context, the allegiance this material demands falls at the cusp of the corporeal.
In other words, this is a gig that from certain angles features all the elements required for something special – even down to the little touches, such as the baroque introduction to ‘Trouble Loves Me’, singer on his knees in front of the drum riser as if in prayer, or the mugshot of former Everton winger Johnny Morrissey on the projection screen during ‘One Of Our Own’. It’s true that there was that certain anywhere undercurrent to events, the generic trappings of the venue perhaps contributing to a minimum of barbed pronouncements from the man with microphone and chevron shirt (predictable comment regarding the independence referendum aside).
But again, I keep coming back to arena mechanics when appraising this show. A distended atmosphere most apparent at the dénouement.
Morrissey’s animal rights politics – perhaps the only occasions he’s explicitly overt – have regularly been used as an aperture through which criticism flows, carnivores in particular turned off by what is perceived to be hectoring. The set closes with a finale that can only be classed as uncompromising, ‘The Bullfighter Dies’ – itself very much pro-animal – seguing into a particularly acerbic version of ‘Meat Is Murder’, Boorer and Jesse Tobias hacking at guitars in brutal cadences. It’s not so much the interpretation that triggers a reaction as the accompanying big screen visuals: graphic footage of farm animals being butchered for human consumption/gratification in a plethora of disturbing fashions.
This does not go down well; as one commentator on social media put it, Morrissey is preaching to both the converted and those that don’t care about about the provenance of what they eat, with little ground in-between. In fact, the intellectual next to us at the time put it eloquently. “Don’t shove it down my throat,” she shouted. “Besides, I love my KFC.”
Perhaps worse, there were boos toward the end of the track. Far from universal, but – as the narrative fell to its savage conclusion – certainly detectable. Was this punters displaying their disappointment that the show was drawing to a close? A reaction to the explicit images they were being force-fed? Disgust at their own dietary complicity? Who knows…
Whatever the source of this ire, and regardless of how valid the obvious provocation sits (bearing in mind that this isn’t the right forum for debating the ethics of the meat industry, even if my own stance isn’t too removed from the singer’s), such a conclusion is certainly guilty of skewing the wider narrative, and imposing a mood at odds with all that came before. However admirable Morrissey’s commitment to cause may be, the footage overpowers the thrust of a track that’s never required embellishment in order to have an impact.
All this leaves the encore a little overpowered. I need zero encouragement to wax about ‘Speedway’ at length. Its power, the seams of subversion; a more perfect song it’s impossible to imagine. The band plays it rough and ready, the vocal bruised and contorted, but although the posture is present and correct, Morrissey ripping off his shirt and throwing it into the crowd, the dramatic inclinations feel secondary to the impact of what came immediately before. Oh, ‘Speedway’, you glorious creature; I fear you deserve better.
And then the drums hammer out ending, and Moz has vacated the stage well before the house lights come up, leaving the other 7,000 souls in the auditorium a thrum of conflicting emotions and arena ennui. There’s absolutely no doubt that Morrissey and band were on sparkling form, but the brio behind such a performance sits in spite of circumstances – the strange audience and tepid proclivities of what is, in essence, a warehouse of corporate-funded entertainment. Lesser artists, and they’d have flailed and wilted in such an environment; that the artist in question owned that space, even if for a brief while, is testament to all that is good and holy about a certain Steven Patrick.
Just don’t leave it six years next time, you hear?