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  • Writer's pictureJO'B

Johnny Marr, with Gaz Coombes, O2 Academy Leeds, 5th April 2024

Updated: Apr 7

There are many great bands from Leeds (and Whitesnake). I have seen a fair few of them, including The Sisters Of Mercy, Kaiser Chiefs, Soft Cell, Scritti Politti, The Wedding Present, Cud and I am sure there are more. In the 70s, Leeds was home to The Mekons, Gang Of Four and The Three Johns - the same art course at Leeds Poly had Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, Andy McClusky from OMD and both Marc Almond and Dave Ball from Soft Cell. It has a pretty cool, and underrated musical heritage.

In the 80s, I always associated Leeds with Goths, not just because it was the home of the aforementioned Sisters Of Mercy, but also Southern Death Cult, Ghost Dance, Skeletal Family and The Mission. It has a long tradition of indie, in its many shades (though usually black, given the predominance of Goths!).

In February 1991, I schlepped up from Exeter to Leeds on a National Express coach to see the Sisters play their tenth anniversary gig. I had met a lovely woman called Claire that Xmas at a party, who in passing said, if I ever needed a place to stay in Leeds, I should give her a shout. I doubt she actually meant that and was just being polite. But she had given me her number and two weeks later I called her to see if I could crash on her floor. She even walked down to the venue and bought me a ticket as you could only buy them in person. What a lovely person she was (and shamefully, I can't even remember her surname).

I dumped my gear at hers, and toddled through the snow in my leather biker jacket, flouncy shirt and suede pixie boots (clearly I had dressed for the weather) and saw the Godfathers of Goth (Gothfathers?) at their peak. I was dying on my arse with a nasty bug, but I do recall them starting the gig with Alice and playing a cracking version of Gimme Shelter. And I remember being freezing cold by the end of the set, sat on the floor feeling like death. Some nice Goths walked me back to where I was staying and I slept on Claire's student bedroom floor, trekking back to Exeter the next day, loaded with paracetamol and shivering all the way home.

Tonight though, we are seeing Manchester's finest guitar hero, turned frontman, The Smiths' Johnny Marr. He's supported by Oxford's Supergrass monkey (Monkee?) Britpop legend, Gaz Coombes. No Goths in sight, it's a damp April as opposed to a freezing February and I am staying at the Malmaison, rather than breaking my back on a hard wooden floor in a tatty sleeping bag. An all round much better experience.

Mrs JO'B has come up to meet me in Leeds (I worked here for a couple of days in the run up to the gig). We grab a swift beer at The Shed Bar, then walk 15 minutes to the venue. The Shed Bar has indie music pictures on its walls, it's like someone entered my head and built a bar based on what they saw (they might just turn the volume down a tad, my hearing is definitely feeling the effects of 37 years of gigging). And they were playing Easy Lover by Phil Collins and Philip Bailey - what on earth were they thinking? My head definitely is never playing that rubbish...

We've never been to the Academy in Leeds. Its capacity is 2,300 and it's rammed with Smiths and Supergrass fans (I imagine that the Venn diagram of their respective fans is pretty much a circle). This is my 9th time seeing Johnny (still making up for turning down a ticket to The Smiths' last ever gig - see Ten Bad Gig Decisions). I did see Supergrass a few times, and have caught Gaz solo several times as well (the last gig was back in November 2022 - You Wear It Well - life after Britpop - Gaz Coombes and Tim Burgess live in London, November 2022). Both are on our "must see" list if they are playing London, but as they are playing Hammersmith Odeon, we thought we would try a smaller venue.

As is well documented here, I am "Morrissey Neutral", whereby I make a charitable donation to offset any benefit that Moz gets from me seeing Johnny play Smiths songs. Until Moz drops his anti-immigrant nonsense and stops sticking up for Tommy Robinson, I remain baffled by him, and the fans that excuse him. Love is blind, clearly. I've already made a pre-emptive donation to a charity that my colleague, a local Councillor, recommended. Guilt-free gig-going is important.

Gaz hits the stage promptly at 7.45, and blasts through a short ten song set, all solo material, no Supergrass songs. He's done the reunion recently and his material is strong enough to not need them. His last album, Turn The Car Around, his fourth, is a cracker, though Matador, his second album, is his finest to date (see Raging Bull – a look back at Gaz Coombes’ Matador).

Ten songs, sadly nothing from his debut, Here Come The Bombs, but a fair spread across the last three records. It's a good mix of bangers (20/20, Deep Pockets, Wounded Egos) and tracks from his fab latest album. Given this is a support gig, Gaz has a reduced backing band - only Piney Gir covering the usual three-piece backing vocals, but she covers this brilliantly. The most touching part of the set is his most personal song, The Girl Who Fell To Earth. About his daughter, it's just lovely.

The venue is full for his set, a nice crowd, though there is a strange preponderance of Sergio Tacchini tops. There are a few father and son pairings, a handful of people in dodgy fake Smiths t-shirts and one man in a backward baseball cap (I am with Pete Doherty - "there are fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap").

Gaz and crew finish bang on 8.30, the set pounded through in 45 minutes. Mrs JO'B and I grab a quick beer - although the venue was pretty full for Gaz, it now feels rammed. It's hard to fight my way through the crowd to get back with our drinks, but I barge my way through, whilst offering apologies and excuse mes...Back at our patch, two young men with Cribs-style haircuts end up beside us, and chat endlessly. We fear that they will gabble through Johnny's set and Mrs JO'B readies herself to admonish them. But as the lights go down, the sirens blare, the stage lights flash and Johnny takes the stage, the two Crib-ettes immediately shut up and look enraptured by the band. Phew.

Johnny is four albums into his solo career, having played in The Smiths, The The, Electronic, Pretenders, The Cribs, Modest Mouse and played with Bryan Ferry, Pet Shop Boys and many many more (see Round Round Round Round I Get Around - Musicians In Multiple Bands). He is an accomplished performer and frontman as well as guitar legend.

This tour is to promote his solo greatest hits, Spirit Power. so it's a little bit of a shame that ten of the 19 songs played are songs by The Smiths, Electronic and an Iggy Pop cover (The Passenger). Gaz doesn't feel the need to play the old songs, but Johnny clearly does.

I get the crowds want The Smiths songs (I do too), but I think he's got the balance wrong on this setlist. His solo material is REALLY strong, way better than I ever imagined - four old songs and the rest from his solo albums would be a great gig. I saw Simple Minds a fortnight ago in London and they played a stupendous gig. But they played one song from after 1991. I love their early stuff, but if they promoted a tour just playing songs from their last four albums, I would be there like a shot.

Also, Johnny has been playing the same set of Smiths songs now for the last few years - each set has about six/seven songs from a list of 15 that he plays. If he needs to play Smiths songs for the masses, then mix it up a bit. Barbarism Begins At Home, Nowhere Fast, Shakespear's Sister, I Started Something I Couldn't many corking songs to choose from!

But this is just moaning. Tonight is a GREAT gig. Johnny looks hugely comfortable on stage, at the centre mark. There are two new songs, from his greatest hits, Somewhere and The Answer, both solid additions to his growing bank of solo tunes. Though Panic has the crowd erupt ("the Leeds side streets that you slip down"), Generate! Generate! from his debut solo album gets an equally warm reception. New Town Velocity, also from that album, is the highlight of the evening for me. The most Smiths-y of his solo songs, it has much gentle swaying and singing from the piled in audience.

After This Charming Man, we decide we need the loo and another drink. We've been bellowing along to one of the strangest opening lyrics ever ("punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate") and our throats need lubrication (that's our excuse and we're sticking to it). A nice woman hears us debate whether we try and fight our way back to where we stand, and says she will hold our spot, but the venue is packed tight and there is no way we will get back, so we resign ourselves to finding a corner at the back for the rest of the set. Plus my confidence at finding my way through a crowd is shattered after getting lost carrying three pints at Depeche Mode...

At the back, there is much hugging amongst big burly men. The singalong to Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want is beautiful in its own way. Big lads, more comfortable yelling on the terraces, sing this most plaintive plea from the hopeless. You forget what a laddish following Moz and The Smiths had. Upstarts of the world uniting over some of the greatest songs of the 80s.

Get The Message, the second Electronic single, is a little flat and Johnny could easily drop this in favour of something with a bit more wallop, but Bigmouth Strikes Again and How Soon Is Now? restore any lost momentum. Easy Money has the crowd getting down with their bad selves, and Getting Away With It brings the evening to a dancey ending.

Johnny quickly returns for a punchy encore. First, a nice, but unnecessary cover of Iggy Pop's The Passenger, followed by a rousing You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby. The final song is that ode to double suicide, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Again, the Roundhay Ruffians warble along, hugging each other sweetly. It's all rather lovely at the back of the room.

And then Johnny is gone. Two tickets for this show cost £80, and given we got 29 songs and two and a half hours of superb songs, it was excellent value. Both Gaz and Johnny, and their respective bands were amazing.

Whilst I would love to see Johnny play more of his solo catalogue, it was great to hear those Smiths songs and How Soon Is Now? remains breathtaking. Mrs JO'B and I hit one more bar for red wine and chunter away about how great the gig was. We are back up here in July for another double bill - Suede and the Manic Street Preachers. Two more bands from our youth, belting out cracking new material as well as old classics. Possibly more Goths will emerge for that, though the July sun may be a bit much for them, bless 'em...

Stay safe, and if you enjoyed this, please subscribe (see link below), x

PS check out Johnny's son, Nile, whose only album to date is fabulous - Nile Marr - Are You Happy Now?

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1 Comment

Apr 07

Thanks for this review. I’ve got tickets to see them in Nottingham later this month. I’m going mainly for Gaz but my daughter wants to see Johnny following the recent resurgence of popularity in Smiths songs. I saw Johnny supporting Blondie a couple of years ago and he was ace. As a former Smiths fan I wasn’t sure how I would feel but it was a good guilt free indulgence 😬😊 Thanks again and thanks for your musings. Love reading them every month

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