Many of us who grew up loving the Smiths have rather shelved that affection in recent years. Many of us, being lily-livered liberals, have rather taken against Morrissey’s politics and his public support for the far-right For Britain party. Even those inclined to agree with him might have tired of his unrelenting self-pity and his inability to say anything nice about anyone, ever. Yes, we’ve still got lovely Johnny Marr playing the songs in his solo shows, but with the greatest goodwill in the world — and Marr gets granted the greatest goodwill in the world by being such an obviously decent fella — he’s no one’s idea of a great singer. If only there were some way those songs could be performed by someone who can really sing, backed by a band who can really play them.
Which is how we ended up with ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ hitmaker Rick Astley — a Smiths fan in his teens — fronting the hugely successful young indie band Blossoms for two shows at which they performed nothing but the songs of the Smiths: a terrible joke gone wonderfully right. In a year like this has been, it doesn’t take a lot to make a show seem special — What? Modern Romance will be performing ‘Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey’ on amplified combs and spoons? Count me in! — but this was an evening of quite astonishing joy: wholly uncynical on the part of both performers and audience. I saw the actual Smiths a couple of times as a teenager, and this was more fun than I ever had watching them.
Astley pitched things exactly right: he was gently self-deprecating; he allowed himself the occasional florid gesture in performance, but he spoke of having wanted to sing these songs since his teens, and he delivered them perfectly — making all those unexpected leaps into falsetto that Morrissey used to, and allowing his rich, warm voice to wrap itself around those gloriously unrock lyrics: ‘I dreamt about you last night/And I fell out of bed twice/ You can pin and mount me/ Like a butterfly’. Blossoms, using three guitars at times, gave the music the oomph of the recorded versions rather than the sometimes scratchy sound the Smiths had live.
I might quibble with the setlist — does anyone really need ‘Well I Wonder’ or ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’? — but I had no other criticisms. Instead I kept thinking how good everyone was: ooh, yes, Charlie Salt, you’re making those basslines pop! And Josh Dewhurst, how are you getting your guitar to sound so simultaneously fractured and fluid? I was a sceptic at first, but this miracle worked.
This run of shows extended only to two, and I can’t imagine there’s much incentive to turn it into a regular thing, but equally I’d be surprised if there weren’t more, because everyone in the room seemed to be having the night of their life. If you ever liked the Smiths, don’t miss it if it comes round again.
At heart, the Astley/Blossoms show was an old-fashioned working men’s club show: family entertainer sings someone else’s old hits. The show by Billy Nomates — the stage name of a young woman named Tor Maries — was equally a working men’s club show. Not only was it nothing more than a singer with a backing tape in front of a tinselly backdrop, but the Moth Club is a former servicemen’s club (and one of the most atmospheric little rooms in London). All you needed was Peter Kay and we could have been in Phoenix Nights.
Maries has something, I’m just not quite sure what. She’s been championed by Sleaford Mods, and there’s some of their furious absurdism in her, especially when she’s rapping along to skeletal backing. But she can also sing well, and in a rather unexpected way: she phrases like an American MOR singer, which gives this DIY music an unusually creamy, lush tone. This is what Pat Benatar might have sounded like, if every single aspect of her life had been different. It all came together on ‘Hippy Elite’, on which Marie almost crooned her disdain for wealthy do-gooders: ‘If I could only quit my job I’d join the hippy elite/ Hug a tree for me, hug a tree for me.’
She danced as though she were boxing, skipping across the stage, arms jabbing, which was fitting, because the tone of her lyrics is constant sparring. At the moment, it feels a little obvious, but in that space between singing and sparring there’s room for something unusual to grow. She’s great, and once the material matches her talents she can achieve anything.
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