In the 2003 documentary The Importance of Being Morrissey, Noel Gallagher noted that “when Morrissey comes to England, you fucking know about it.” And over a decade on, that simple fact still rings true; despite little promotion and negligible chart success in the past few years, tickets for the ex-Smiths man’s only UK date this year – and first in his hometown since he last played the arena in 2012 – were snapped up in a frenzy, and the cavernous venue was packed to the rafters with his famously adoring fans.
Introducing himself as ‘the new lord mayor of Manchester’, the singer’s brief return saw him and his band run through a blistering 22 song set, with the energy high from the start with the opening trio of ‘Suedehead’, ‘Alma Matters’ and the New York Dolls-esque clang of ‘All You Need is Me’. Whilst his last hometown stop was an emotional affair – one which saw him thank the crowd for their support before a teary-eyed performance of ‘Please Please Please…’ – this time Moz was in a much less sentimental, no-nonsense mood, one that almost verged on hostility at times in the way he addressed to the crowd. It was a setlist full of curveballs and thin on the ground as far as big singles were concerned; the obscure B-side ‘Ganglord’ got an airing early on, and was accompanied by an unsettling montage of American police brutality footage (“Ganglord, the police are kicking their way into my house,” he croons, tongue in cheek, throughout the song, “and I’m turning to you to save me”).
Despite much speculation around the his health, Morrissey’s voice was at the strongest and most refined it’s been in recent memory – with renditions of ‘It’s Hard to Walk Tall When You’re Small’ (another B-side), ‘Vauxhall & I’ centrepiece ‘Speedway’ and ‘The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores’ being particularly impressive. His current ragtag backing band, meanwhile – which these days mostly consists of a revolving door of session musicians – features ex-Chili Pepper Jesse Tobias on lead guitar and Smashing Pumpkins alum Matt Walker at the drum stool, alongside trusty long-time sidekick Boz Boorer. Morrissey’s sound has slowly but surely evolved over the years into a muscular glam rock pastiche, with crunchy guitars beefing up the jangle pop of his older material – albeit sacrificing some nuance and subtlety in the process (case in point: the ham-fisted plod of latter-day cut ‘I Will See You In Far-Off Places’, which seemed to go on for much longer than its four minute running time).
Perhaps still his signature song, ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’, predictably brought the house down, with its swirling string section and orchestrated guitars still sounding majestic, and the legion of fans singing along with every word – as if it were a modern day hymn for them – whilst reaching out their hands to the singer during the track’s climax. ‘Ouija Board, Ouija Board’, one of his more minor singles, was nonetheless another surprise highlight, and fan favourite murder ballad ‘Jack The Ripper’ is a welcome return to the set, seeing Moz at his most theatrical and making liberal use of the smoke machine.
Elsewhere in the set, the obligatory ‘Meat Is Murder’ was devastatingly effective in putting its message across, as the stage was bathed in blood red light as the screen showed a montage of harrowing meat industry animal abuse, whilst Morrissey angrily ad libbed “the meat in your fat fucking mouth is murder” – just in case anyone was about to accuse him of sitting on the fence about the issue. It’s a chilling, thought-provoking mainstay of modern Morrissey shows, but you can’t help but notice that the mood never quite recovers from that point on. Another jarring, uncomfortable moment arose when Moz went out of his way to leave his idol-turned-friend-turned-rival David Bowie out of his list of fallen heroes in 2016 (“the year of the reaper”) before main set closer ‘Oboe Concerto’
After saying his enigmatic last words – “whatever happens, I love you” – the band returned for a brief encore ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ before promptly leaving the stage without a goodbye. Fans stayed in their places whilst the house lights remained dimmed hoping for another song, but it wasn’t to be; the elusive icon has always known the value of leaving fans wanting more, and in any event if recent reports his new album is complete, they needn’t worry – with his vocal strength at an all-time high and a revamped, youthful new band behind him, it’s likely the real and proper poet laureate is in this for the long haul after all.
This Morrissey article was written by Dan Whiteley, a GIGsoup contributor. Lead photo by miserymozzery