Morrissey And Blondie At Madison Square Garden, Saturday, June 27th, 2015, Review
“I’d sincerely like to thank Madison Square for going cruelty free tonight. It’s an historic night in New York City just as it’s a historic week in the USA. Good times, for a change,” were Morrissey’s words to us before the encore’s first song on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. I am not sure if I’d equate the legalization of gay marriage with MSG going meat free for a night, but if it makes the “heaven knows I’m miserable now” former lead singer with the Smiths enjoy good times, I am all for it. Madison Square (sic) wasn’t sold out, but it wasn’t an embarrassment either, particularly since Morrissey’s last album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, was pulled from all digital platforms last year, and before that you have to go back to 2009 to find new music. Compounded by 2013’s disastrous US tour, it could have gone either way. But you can look at his MSG attendance the equivalent of selling out Radio City Music Hall three nights in a row.
The audience has aged of course. From where I was sitting, I didn’t see a heavy college contingent (or a heavy gay contingent for that matter) but rather much the audience you’d imagine for an 80s band like, say, Blondie, who opened for him. Even so, if nostalgia has chased him down, he has responded by ignoring it. His 21 song set included 7 songs off World Peace and 3 from his Smiths days, really two because “Meat Is Murder” doesn’t really count anymore. To be perfectly blunt, I could have written up a better setlist with my hands tied behind my back and so the real question was: how did he perform them? The answer is magnificently. You know the race car engine that opens “Speedway” and the chainsaw on “Meat Is Murder”, essentially the same effect, he has now included it as an instrument on various songs, he opened the latest album with it, and it adds an edge of drama to the drama-matic any way, he jumps you up with dread and hope. With the band behind him, performing very powerful straight up rock with Morrissey’s operatic baritone and deeply messed up lyric front and center, it was the essence of rock as soapy solemnity. Essentially, the Smiths without Marr’s guitar or songwriting prowess, but with otherwise a much better band.
Before we get to Morrissey we get something wonderful, and I don’t mean the $7.25 Jalapeno Poppers, what we get is a very cheerful Debbie Harry and Blondie (is a group, remember) performing a fine ten song set. The last time I saw Blondie was October 2013 at Roseland and X wiped the floor with them, so it was good to see them perform such a powerful set, easily good enough to slay the cavernous MSG, filled early just for them. Debbie was on her game and then some, in great voice though willing to speak the lyric when she couldn’t hit the notes, and (yeah, I’ll use it again) Blondie certainly is a group. The final song was their epic usual closer “The Tide Is High” with a brass band lead by a booming trombone adding worlds of excitement and Debbie literally wrapped up in a rainbow flag.
With an asinine “It takes a nation of zillions to hold us back” it was nice of Morrissey to open the evening with a Smiths song, but “The Queen Is Dead” ??? As Helen Bach didn’t write here in her Worcester, Mass review earlier this, but did mention in person, “The Last Of The Gang To Die” was a terrible choice for last song, we would get a terrific choice for last song at MSG, but first song? Meh.
Still, whatever the complaint is, it isn’t for the music, or the playing, or Moz’s attitude and interaction with the crowd. He balanced the arrogance of a man who answered a scream of undying devotion with “Yes, I am aware of that” with a genuine appreciation of his audience. The problem is the material is all over the place. For Moz so much depends upon his songwriting collaborators because he doesn’t write music and because his lyrical prowess never waivers, it is always about who is writing with him. He is a great lyricist, his memoir was a lucid, dulcet, poetic prose, a recherchez de temp perdu at the beginning that slowly becomes a brutal revenge saga. But his songs, entire albums, are all over the place. Despite a masterful “Speedway” with a trick ending and the Middle Eastern flavored “I Will See You In Far Off Places”, the set could get inconsistent when the material let Moz down.”Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed” has always been a blur for me. “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, which he performed the last time he played MSG TWENTY FOUR YEARS AGO. was his most perfunctory moment of the night, “World Peace Is None Of Your Business” is never going to be very good, though the performance was fine. Every time I hear that chainsaw I think it is “Meat Is Murder” time.
Which leads me directly to highlights. “Meat Is Murder” as music improves every time he performs it. From my seat I couldn’t see the film, though I know it well enough by now, but musically it is a terrifying indictment of 95% of mankind. Moz is, of course, quite right about our treatment of other species and I won’t attempt to justify it at all. What he brings to life (and death) here is a gothic horror story that happens to be completely true. It is a murder song, like “Delia’s Dead”, on an unprecedented level, that dwarfs the USSR under Stalin, or the US’s final solution against Native Americans. Perhaps, in a world where 75 years ago homosexuals were being given electric shocks in insane asylums and even today, are put to death in Iran and the Russian President condemns them, strides can be made in forcing me to not butcher living things for dinner. The song makes me uncomfortable and riveted at the same time.
More good stuff, the guitar solo on “Staircase At The University” overcame the godawful bridge,”Will Never Marry” is filled with irony now of course, but still has the standoffish prudery and aloofness we love in Moz. I mentioned I couldn’t see the screen earlier, so I couldn’t see what rock nyc writer Mary Rudzis wrote about (below) on Facebook about the masterful “Ganglord”, with its dire “remember the police can always be bribed” as one thing though the coda “get yourself back to the ghetto” was something else entirely, the second best musical moment of the evening:
“Upon reflection of seeing Morrissey live with a new setlist, I have a strong appreciation for his performance of the song “Ganglord”. Moz is famous for the videos and images he displays on the screen behind him as he performs (most notably the Meat is Murder portion of the concert showing videos of slaughterhouses and graphic and violent animal abuse).
“The video that plays during “Ganglord” is powerful, and relevant to the time. It shows clips of intense police brutality towards people of color, women, disabled individuals, animals- it’s on display and right in everyone’s face. It’s an important thing Morrissey is doing, using his very captive audience and large platform to put these injustices in their laps and basically ask, “well what are you going to do about it”?
“Though he’s a white man, he is still standing up and speaking for those without a voice. A performer using their fame and stage time to discuss social issues is few and far between, and something to be appreciated.”
The best moment of the evening was the last moment. Even if the song itself, “Now My Heart Is Full” is pretty miserable, as the Graham Greene reference certainly implies, it was performed as a true rarity: a benediction, a moment where something good is happening and everything good is happening, and just a strange proof that sometimes life can be alright. Not often but just this once, right?
It was a good evening, a good set, but not great. The best time I’ve seen Moz was Summerstage, September 17th 1997 on the Malajusted tour. The album is a favorite and though he again didn’t do much Smiths, what he did was an encore of “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” and I was with my friend Gillian Beck and we nearly jumped for joy. The MSG set was a goodie, maybe a little better than his Radio City Music Hall set from 2012. A solid B+, except Helen Bach just warned me I better give it an A-. I never said, I never her grade was completely unfounded…