When he hits the road, Johnny Marr puts himself in a bind. He is best known as the highly influential guitarist and co-songwriter for the British rock band the Smiths. But in the way that Robert Plant and Mick Jagger are the prima facie personalities of their bands, Morrissey, the Smiths’ lead singer, is the face and voice of the Smiths, a band that has been defunct since 1987.
In the last two years, Marr has released two sturdy albums that harken to the Smiths’ era but establish him as a legitimate, contemporary solo artist. Wednesday night, he headlined a bill at the Midland theater, and the wonder was how, without Morrissey, he would reconstitute the music he made with his former band and how would it jell with his own material. The answer was: quite well.
For more than 80 minutes, Marr and his three-piece band delivered a set that seamlessly blended Smiths’ classics with his own material, including “Getting Away With It,” a song by Electronic, the ’90s duo he formed with Bernard Sumner of New Order.
They opened with “Playland,” the title track of the album he released in October. It’s a poppy, crunchy, head-bobbing guitar anthem that gets the woefully small audience — fewer than 300 people, despite the free admission — into a dancing mood.
Marr is 51, but he looks as if he hasn’t gained a pound or aged a week since the Smiths’ heyday. He followed that with “Panic,” the first of seven Smiths songs, all of which detonated loud, rowdy cheers of recognition. Most sang the “Hang the DJ” chorus along with him.
He could call his band the Stoics, as stone-faced as all three were throughout the set, but they were taut and steady and their harmonies were tight all night. On much of Marr’s new material, you can hear the sounds of bands he and the Smiths so heavily inspired, such as the Stone Roses and Oasis. “Boys Get Straight” is one of those.
Marr explained that “Straight” had nothing to do with sexual orientation. Rather, it’s about cultural divisions and capitalism. “Perhaps I should have called it ‘Dudes Get Conventional,’” he deadpanned. Before “Speak Out, Reach Out,” another “Playland” track, he revealed, with a snarl and a sneer, the story that inspired it: a confrontation in the financial district of London with some well-heeled types who ignored some homeless people.
He noted the size of the crowd and expressed his appreciation several times, thanking those who were there for all the noise they generated.
They were loudest for Smiths tracks, such as “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” and especially for the miasmatic “How Soon Is Now?” Marr exhibited his inimitable guitar wizardry on all of them while approximating, but not mimicking, the voice of Morrissey. None felt forced or counterfeit. Rather, they sounded natural and true.
Marr closed with a cover of “I Fought the Law” that matched the ferocity of the Clash’s version, then another Smiths favorite, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” It’s a song about desperation and insatiable love that prompted another hearty sing-along, much of it a cappella. Toward the end, Marr played his guitar high above his head, arousing more cheers from a pack of die-hard fans thrilled to see the Smiths’ flame rekindled, even without Morrissey.
The show was a free event. Admission was a donation of food for local food banks. Three acts preceded Marr.
Meredith Sheldon: A singer-songwriter from Berkeley, Calif., she was assigned the unenviable duty of performing a solo-electric set after two fully loaded local bands had performed. She had a hard time registering with the crowd, though it treated her politely. Her closer, “Can’t Explain,” was nice. No doubt it would have connected better with at least a rhythm section behind her.
Roman Numerals: This Kansas City band was a perfect appetizer for the Marr crowd. Sprung from Unknown Pleasures, a Joy Division cover band, they perform original songs that evoke that same era. It’s all tuneful and groovy. Wednesday’s show was its first in Kansas City in more than three years. The band shook off the rust and delivered an invigorating 40-minute set.
The Latenight Callers: They have embellished their nocturnal sound with live percussion, which only adds more dynamo to their sultry, noirish moods. And like the Roman Numerals, they sounded like a major-league band in the Midland.
Johnny Marr set list
Playland; Panic; The Right Thing Right; Easy Money; 25 Hours; New Velocity; The Headmaster Ritual; Back in the Box; Speak Out Reach Out; Generate! Generate!; Bigmouth Strikes Again; Boys Get Straight; Candidate; Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want; Getting Away With It; How Soon Is Now; Still Ill; Dynamo; I Fought the Law; There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.