Richard Nevin watches Johnny Marr ripping up Digbeth.
For all its regeneration, gentrification and general geeing up over the past couple of decades, Digbeth is still a hard sell on a damp, cold Monday night in early November.
The streets always appear darker in Digbeth than anywhere else in the city, the buildings almost toppling into the narrow pavements, a brooding, mysterious area, haunted by the ghosts of long closed pubs and factories and, of course dwellings, the distant sound of fireworks adding to the gothic feeling. No amount of arty spaces or clever graffiti can keep a lid on what Digbeth once was but yet it thrives with the bushy beards of hipsters and Dubliners alike.
The magnificent Civic Hall still stands proudly on the main drag, renamed it may be but it’s still a fine old building that holds a few dark Digbeth tales of its own. The hall continues to resonate with musical entertainment and on this particular Guy Fawkes night the more credible of the two remaining, active ex-members of The Smiths is in town.
Formed from the ashes of Palma Violets, Crewel Intentions were the supporting act. Dripping with Nick Cave’s influence a polite appreciation became an almost enthusiastic response by the end of their thirty minute set, a rare achievement in front of such a partisan audience.
Now on his third album, Johnny Marr has cultivated a modest solo career, striking out on his own after numerous collaborations post-Smiths and the set list reflected all of this. Dominated by his own work the show also featured a sprinkling of Smiths classics and two tracks from his days in Electronic.
Best described as guitar based rock, the solo stuff is greeted with enthusiasm but this pales when compared with the reception afforded to the likes of Big Mouth Strikes Again or the Headmaster Ritual, the Smiths devotees among the crowd adopting the role of Marr’s former writing partner in lusty singalongs and in some cases, looks.
The presence of Stephen Patrick is unsurprisingly never far away and the magic of the collaboration with Marr is evident as it is absent when the songs are performed back to back, but that’s nothing unusual as anyone who has listened to Mick Jagger’s solo work or some of the dark recesses of McCartney without Lennon.
Marr strikes an increasingly confident figure as frontman, plenty of posing in front of the monitors and swinging that beautiful jaguar guitar around with swagger, three years on from his last visit to the same venue you can see a maturity that is also reflected in the new material with current single Spiral Cities drawing, not entirely welcome, comparisons with Simple Minds amongst others while older tracks such as Easy Money have earned a class if not classic status.
The crowd-lit singalong of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out is a highlight towards the climax; the anthem of cranky romanticism remains a steadfast feature of Marr’s gigs and the smile on his face bore testimony to this mirrored by the delighted crowd.
But if anything demonstrated the power of music at this or any other gig you care to mention it was the sight of one chap in the upper balcony, gripping the handrail tight and singing along to every word of Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me as if his whole life depended on it. That made me smile.