We live in strange times. Britain, and an old-school socialist – one resembling a college lecturer fired for inappropriate behaviour, and thus left to spend his days down the local Wetherspoons – has somehow become leader of the Labour Party. In the US, the world’s most vulgar man is still a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. And in an ice rink in Hull, the lights go out for the false stop of ‘Speedway’… only, when the music resumes, the spotlights pick out centre-stage a short man in black shirt and red braces, singing the closing lyrics in Spanish. And wait a minute – isn’t that Boz Boorer banging away at the drum kit? And as for the be-quiffed figure standing behind the keyboards, tambourine held high above his head – well, he looks kind of familiar, too…
“There is absolutely no way that we can generate any interest from record labels in the United Kingdom, therefore the imminent two nights at Hammersmith are likely to be our final ever UK shows.” So read the statement posted earlier that day on True To You. Hull tonight, two dates in London, and that’s your lot, sunshine. And however true to us such intentions may be (and I suspect that this is not the final time British audiences will be graced with his presence – if only because Morrissey fans tend to treat every gig as his last, regardless), such an itinerary segues with this strange times narrative.
Hull Arena is an inauspicious venue; low-slung and moody, with the look and feel of an ageing warehouse on a remote industrial estate; Barn would be a more appropriate moniker. As if inspired by surroundings, the crowd are drunk and frisky, tendrils of tension rippling across the auditorium from the bar at the back – closed for Moz’s set, allegedly at his own instruction – then up the stairs, where the only other booze facility has temporarily run out of lager. There’s no support – just the same old footage of esoterica and the New York Dolls we’ve seen before, projected onto the screen above the stage like a ropey YouTube playlist.
And yet, and yet… it can be difficult to detail – especially to non-believers – the electricity created when Morrissey and band take the stage; the language of description becomes quasi-religious, which is even more hackneyed than a band swapping instruments during a track such as ‘Speedway’. There is however something elusively concrete to presence; I’ve been to hundreds of gigs in my time, from the dodgy to the glorious, yet few experiences can match the frisson implicit in six figures emerging from the wings to bow at each other, then taking their positions for ‘Suedehead’.
Ah, Hull; if this is to be the last time he plays the north of England, he’s certainly not going out with a whimper. The previous witnessing of a Morrissey gig (Glasgow back in March), and the performance (tight, robust) was tempered by a venue that was all wrong. Tonight, and despite misgivings of the ice rink vernacular – unsympathetic acoustics, and did I mention the hassle behind procuring a pint? – the band arrive with nostrils flared. Not so much with point to prove, but a swagger hewn from acute confidence. Top of game – oh yes.
If it’s been said before that the current line-up represents the sharpest accompaniment Steven Patrick has been gifted, then gigs such as this represent affirmation. The interplay between the guitars of Jesse Tobius and Boz Boorer, however resolute (‘Alma Matters’; ‘Istanbul’; the ziggurat pay-off to ‘I’m Not A Man’) is supplanted (and occasionally subverted) by Gustavo Manzur’s keyboards (he who took the mic for ‘Speedway’s’ dénouement), creating a musical paradigm wider in aperture than on previous tours.
The set-list, too, is a reveal, the usual riffling through the Smiths back catalogue avoided until the back end. This allows for a set that (understandably) continues to lean towards the more recent World Peace Is None Of Your Business to flex and breathe. ‘I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’ can feel a little flat on disc, but not here. ‘The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores’ is delivered with brio and charm in equal quantities, whilst ‘I Will See You In Far Off Places’ is recast as savage. Urgent. Necessary.
Not that the World Peace… material is delivered in any way as aside. ‘Staircase At The University’ and ‘The Bullfighter Dies’ have become live staples since Morrissey started touring this album (the latter buttressed with a comment – “The pain in Spain falls mainly on the Bull” – that underlines not simply distaste but a genuine sorrow). But more than this, ‘Oboe Concerto’ and ‘Smiler With Knife’ are lifted into the night with a delicate playfulness embedded across each. The between song references to Jeremy Corbyn and ‘God Save The Queen’ may have been expected, but the panache behind these two tracks in particular functions over and above accusations of routine.
To be honest, “routine” occasionally surfaces in the pejorative when discussing the Morrissey stagecraft (or at least certain elements of it). The impervious thrust of ‘Ganglord’ is accompanied by footage of police brutality. And that video during the visceral ‘Meat Is Murder’ still has carnivores turning pale (as it should). But that’s what Morrissey is all about; it’s a familiarity turned inside out, over and across itself, and however formulaic his uncompromising nature can appear, it’s the razor-blade delivery that causes hair on napes of neck to stand erect.
‘What She Said’ as encore, shirt ripped off and thrown into the crowd (where, of course, potential recipients fight each other like medievalists after holy relics), then he – and we – are off, dispensed into the exotic confines of Hull city centre. How he does it I’ll never know, but where-as contemporaries and lesser lights have long since succumbed to the karaoke circuit, Morrissey feels as relevant and important as ever. Indeed, all that was missing from tonight were the final lines of ‘Disappointed’:
“This is the last song I will ever sing… No, I’ve changed my mind again. Goodnight, and thank you.”
Until next time, then…