To Die By Your Side

Morrissey – Birmingham Symphony Hall 23/10/2009

October 25th, 2009

It’s seems Guinness are right. Good things do come to those that wait. Five months after the show was postponed through illness, Morrissey finally arrives at Symphony Hall. Or as he prefers to dub it, Sympathy Hall. And what a way to make an entrance. Striding confidently on stage as the band launch into a ferocious version of ‘This Charming Man’, Morrissey appears ready to make up for lost time. The band batter the song into it’s now familiar fast choppy punk-lite version while Morrissey sways and whips and teases and feigns and reaches out and pulls back and does everything you want and expect him to do. Only at times, it seems a little forced. As though he is having to push himself. Something seems wrong and throughout the 80 minutes he’s on stage, there’s a nagging sense that all is not right. He seems restrained. Unable to give his all. He alludes to almost not making it. Makes a throwaway remark about the morphine kicking in. A comment which, at the time felt like one of his typically pithy comments, with hindsight takes on a greater relevance given his collapse onstage the following night. At the time however, it is little more of a nagging sense and to dwell on it would take away from what is essentially a triumphant performance worth waiting for.

The wait, one would imagine, has also informed the set list. Where back in May, you’d have expected it to lean heavily on the just released ‘Years Of Refusal’, tonight it’s a far more varied mix than that and indeed than previous tours. There’s no ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, no ‘Suedehead’, replaced instead by less obvious picks. A good pick of recent material sits next to an impressive number of Smiths songs which in turn take equal position alongside tracks from the forthcoming ‘Swords’ b-sides album. On paper it might look like a somewhat random, disparate collection but in reality it works well, lesser known tracks sounding just as good as those more familiar.

Morrissey meanwhile is his usual playful, mockingly dramatic self. Less chatty than he has been known to be, he is nonetheless as equal parts charming and knowingly awkward as ever, taunting the reaching hands of the crowd with his just out reach presence. He graces the worthy with a few handshakes. Teasingly places a copy of his upcoming release on the floor inches from stretched out arms, eventually deeming one crowd member worthy of it and swapping it with something they brought for him. There are a few moments where the strains of health or maybe age attack his voice. The smoothness of his distinct croon faltering slightly the longer the gig goes on, but there’s no question he gives all that he is able to.

And to their credit the band are on form tonight. Not just backing Morrissey through the music but supporting him with a presence that raises them above mere backing band. While never threatening to take the focus of their leader, the crowd are just as much a part of tonight’s performance and focus as the man himself. Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias regularly wandering to the front and soaking up some adulation for themselves. And where the band have been known to batter some songs into submission, tonight they find the right distinction between controlled aggression and simply being too heavy handed. ‘Black Cloud’ and ‘Ganglord’ boom out forcefully but with a subtlety and clarity that the band hasn’t necessarily displayed before. ‘I’m Okay By Myself’ thunders to and end, the bass line drawn out into a repeating solo that wouldn’t seem out of place at a punk gig yet seems just as apt here. ‘Because Of My Poor Education’ is a wonderful slice of melodrama, beautifully and delicately performed, ‘Cemetry Gates’ is performed with a delightful lightness of touch, while ‘Nowhere Fast’ rattles by at a quickened pace that adds a surprisingly effective sense of urgency. ‘Life Is A Pigsty’ meanwhile closes the main set in dramatic style, all stormy portent and atmospheric fury that justifies it’s position as set closer far more than the album version would suggest. Morrissey exits the stage quickly with little fuss or flourish leaving the band to take the limelight, extending the song in a gloriously epic manner.

The two highlights however come in the form of ‘How Soon Is Now’ and ‘The Loop’. The latter far exceeding the understated nature of it’s studio version with a raucous outing that is part punk rockabilly, part spaghetti western. Morrissey swaying majestically with each tambourine bash, his band taking the lead and unleash the track with an enthusiasm and swagger or pure rock and roll. ‘How Soon Is Now’ meanwhile is simply breath taking. The familiar oscillating guitar resounding around the hall. The band attacking it with muscular verve, Morrissey tackling it with a freshness that belies it’s familiarity. Stretching the song out with an extended outro of thundering timpani drums, Morrissey lays out on the floor in reverence of Jesse Tobias, gazing up admiringly at his newest guitar hero. The following night, he will find himself on the floor once more in a far more dramatic manner but one thing is for certain. He may be down, but on the evidence of this performance, it’s still not time to count him out just yet.

Set List :This Charming Man (The Smiths cover) / Black Cloud / Ganglord / How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths cover) / I’m OK By Myself / Because Of My Poor Education / Death At One’s Elbow (The Smiths cover) / Teenage Dad On His Estate / I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris / The Loop / Nowhere Fast (The Smiths cover) / When Last I Spoke To Carol / Cemetry Gates (The Smiths cover) / One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell / Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself / Is It Really So Strange? (The Smiths cover) / The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores / Life Is A Pigsty / Encore: First Of The Gang To Die

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