Date of event: 9th December 2018
"Just a heads-up guys: would you mind not placing any bags or drinks on the stage itself?"
The roadie crouched down to our level stage-side, and continued his PSA.
"Johnny likes to move around here a bit, so your stuff might get kicked over." Fair play.
To have the lead guitarist ripping solos mere inches from your face in the front row is something quite special. When the guitarist is Johnny Marr - he of Smiths and now solo fame - it is something otherworldly.
Earth was the final stop on Marr’s months-long Call The Comet Tour, and the stars (as well as Starkeys) were out tonight. The recently refurbished London theatre - renamed EartH, or Evolutionary Arts Hackney - had laid hidden in an art deco building for decades. So it was alien territory for the veteran guitarslinger and long-time rock 'n roll freelancer; as it should be for many in the audience. Tonight he was the main event though.
Marr took to the stage with the cocksure calm and finesse of a pilot on his thousandth flight. Three albums deep into a mid-career solo resurgence starting in 2013, he now commands crowds as comfortably as he does his own creative past.
A hot topic of any Johnny Marr live show is how heavily he will lean into The Smiths' back catalog. We all know 'There Is A Light' (and it will never go out). We all wonder 'How Soon Is Now?' (it was the penultimate song of the main set). But this charming man has some surprises up his heart-speckled sleeves.
Closing the chapter on Comet did mean opening with 'The Tracers'; its rollicking rhythms and already-trademark "woo-woo"'s setting the evening's course for the fast and the celebratory. 'Bigmouth' struck again (early), before Marr launched into the abrasive yet riveting non-album single from September, 'Jeopardy'.
Stage presence can be tricky for lead guitar-singers, doubly so for ones like Marr more accustomed to laying down riffs than convincing vocals. Having seen him during the early days of The Messenger at Coachella Festival in 2013, it was remarkable to witness the shift in five years to full-fledged frontman status. From our intimate vantage point front-left of his mic, we watched Marr bounce across stage like a cat whenever a song allowed him to; eagerly soaking in the adoration from the packed, tiny venue; Cheshire grins a plenty.
For all the (vastly-improved) vocals, Marr is still a songsmith by trade, and leader of a particularly melodic guitar guild in the indie-rock marketplace. You see this in Comet tracks like 'Day In Day Out' and 'Hi Hello'; each finding new patterns to weave intricate, chimey guitar parts into, each chronicling his compulsion to generate (generate! generate!), each capturing the wistful melancholy that was once the perfect soundtrack to Morrissey's voice. Now it's all under one roof, and business is booming for the world's oldest millennial.
The benefit of a tour-closing set is one often gets a last dance with album deep-cuts that might or might not feature in future tours. As many as eight of Call The Comet's twelve tracks had an outing, including the most experimental of Marr's moves away from the Smithsian jangle he's best known for.
'New Dominions' pulsed with krautrock beats, violent slashes of guitar noise, and nihilistic lyrics bordering on sublime ("If I could do anything/I'd burn up faster/A fast track through to a new dominion/Don't go to no paradise after"). For those expecting to bop along to four-on-the-floor guitar pop, this must've been a rude awakening - or challenge to accept.
After a slow but steady 'Walk Into The Sea' (an emotional journey of rebirth - or suicide - on record, made even more poignant live), we emerged into a beautiful realisation: that Johnny Marr was actually more than just a hired gun in the 26 years post-Smiths before going solo (2003's Healers record being a quasi-solo dip in the water).
It all went a bit Electronic in the early years. The late-80's/early-90's collaboration with Bernard Sumner of New Order - one that found pop success on the charts with gooey hits like 'Getting Away With It' and 'Get The Message' - is getting a complete makeover in Marr's current live show. The syrupy synths & strings of yore are now lower in the mix and lower in sugar too. The guitars - all but muted in the originals - are front and centre as you'd expect. But strangely it's the rhythms that got the biggest revamping; out with the sleepy & dated acid house beats, in with Jack Mitchell's peppy drums. It feels more youthful and energetic in 2018 than it ever did in 1989 or 1991.
Marr knows it too. "This is a disco song - from Manchester, England," he proudly declared before 'Getting Away With It'. As the band built the song's sonic foundations bar by bar, Marr stood shimmying on the spot, leading the crowd in a chant like an emcee at a block party. By the time that first guitar riff rung out, the creaky floors of EartH were getting a disconcerting test of their structural integrity.
The venue's size also determined the type of crowd. Preaching to what could only be his faithful, Marr was in a playful, quick-witted mood - such as teasing The Beatles' 'Yesterday' as he tuned his guitar for 'Get The Message'. But the greatest cover of all came when Marr opened the floor to requests. Seeing no love for The Messenger in the setlist thus far, I used my proximity to the talent to make a clear case for the early-days earworm 'Upstarts' - but the song solicitation was just a ruse.
After trying out a partial cover of Steve Miller Band's 'Fly Like An Eagle' ("Someone shouted out at the Filmore in America for a song like "oh yeah let's try that" and now I'm stuck with it"), Marr pointed out the irony of him now knowing a Steve Miller song but not knowing how to play one of his most well-known Smiths tracks.
There was a brief moment of uneasy silence, as the crowd wasn't sure what to make of this odd confession.
"Woah, what just happened! You hear that?" Marr asked with feigned shock. "That was like a mass panic attack; fucking English indie panic attack," he laughed. "Man, I'm just fucking with ya!"
Off goes the guitar (!), not to be replaced with another one (!!). Johnny Marr sans guitar?! We were seeing it play out in full for the first time ever: never before had 'This Charming Man' gotten a walkabout live onstage; not with any of the many bands he has been in post-Smiths nor during his solo career thus far.
And walkabout it was. Marr stalked the stage, full-throated and funnelling all the flair & focus he has for his guitar into the act of singing and being the frontman. The bait-and-switch had delivered the goods, and he owned the performance of his jangly 1984 masterpiece - one which has some of the most Morrisseyean lyrics imaginable. A jumped-up pantry boy who never knew his place indeed.
The Comet neared its final destination, shedding song after song of Marrvelous melodies. 'Bug' - a Call The Comet favourite of mine - now feels like a sweeter cousin to 'Jeopardy', both offering terrifying visions of our facts-be-damned society but knowing how to make it sound like an indie disco party in the process. It made singing along to double-decker busses crashing into us seem all the more acceptable during setlist-staple 'There Is A Light'.
Five hours on my feet, spent queuing and patiently waiting stage-side for this bucket-list live music opportunity, and Marr had the gall to say 'You Just Haven't Earned It, Baby' (you must suffer and cry for a longer time). The cheeky Smiths inclusion was a rowdy conclusion to show number 52, complete with all the thank-you's and what-have-you's of a final night out.
I sat down for the first time in a long time, staring at the stage in disbelief before being shooed up the stairs to the exits. A bleached-blond shaggy-haired 50-something man seemed to be in a similar state of stupor.
"Hi there Zak, good gig huh?"
Zak Starkey - son of The Beatles' drummer Ringo Starr, and current drummer for The Who for the past 22 years - looked up at me in surprise. He decided to introduce himself.
"Yeah mate, really good show. Hadn't seen him on this tour. Went on a while hey, lots of songs..."
"Learn a thing or two from the drums?"
Zak flashed a wry smile, and complimented Jack Mitchell's drumming. He would know a thing or two about playing with Johnny Marr - after all, he was his drummer on the one-off Healer's record.
I bid Zak adieu and caught up with my partner waiting for me at the exit doors.
"Who was that?" she asked.
Even saying it out loud made me doubt the moment had been real. Maybe Marr was right: I'll tell you. But you wouldn't believe me.