Morrissey may have willfully resisted maturity for over 30 years, but he nevertheless came across flatteringly dignified on Wednesday’s opening San Jose stop on his latest tour. That’s not to say that he’s mellowed or compromised his message: A particularly assaultive rendition of the Smiths’ “Meat Is Murder” was accompanied by projected segments from Farm to Fridge – a horrifyingly graphic documentary of America’s slaughterhouses – that made it clear that the 54-year-old troubadour remains a consummate provocateur. He may have long ago traded flouncy women’s blouses for gentlemanly sport jackets, but he’d still rather alienate than ingratiate.
Yet there wasn’t a moment when Morrissey seemed frivolous or uncouth. He held himself erect, stooping only visibly to consider his five-member band or to shake the outstretched arms of his admirers, occasionally pulling them closer while bouncers yanked in the opposite direction. He still wields his microphone chord like a whip while brandishing his mic stand as a weapon, yet he manages to do this as a proper adult, not a delusional Peter Pan. Offstage, it’s quite possible that he’s no less insecure than his lyrics suggest, but for the 90-odd minutes he shared with his fans at the City National Civic Auditorium, the Anglo alt-rock icon nearly seemed at peace with himself – if not with the world.
After a typically Morrissey-esque montage of video clips that included the Ramones, Brian Eno, Chris Andrews, Nico, Mott the Hoople, Charles Aznavour, James Baldwin, the Move, the New York Dolls, and his beloved Lypsinka, the star and his ensemble crashed into the Smiths’ debut masterpiece, “Hand in Glove.” The sold-out crowd drew its collective breath and then roared as keyboardist Gustavo Manzur wailed out the song’s elegiac harmonica refrain. For decades, the singer has faced criticism – some of it justified – that his touring accomplices repeatedly fail to approach the precision and swagger of his ‘80s bandmates, but here they were forceful and succinct while Morrissey crooned as lovingly as ever. He was in extraordinarily supple vocal form.
The rest of the set featured many of the most sensational numbers in the Morrissey/Smiths canon. The performer favored volatility over nostalgia: “Everyday Is Like Sunday” aside, this wasn’t a greatest hits set. Much of it drew from songs no older than 2004’s You Are the Quarry, and when it reached back further, the singer typically chose offbeat selections, like Your Arsenal‘s Ziggy Stardust-referencing “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” or an unexpected B-side like “Yes I Am Blind,” surely one of his most understated, yet assured, self-assessments.
“We are about to release a follow-up to Viva Hate,” Morrissey quipped for his introduction to “World Peace Is None of Your Business,” the title track to his first album in five years, slated for a July release. It’s a barbed ballad that sports ruthlessly realistic observations of ever-widening economic disparity. Later in the set, keyboardist Manzur switched to accordion for the brief but stirring, “The Bullfighter Dies.” Another new one, “Earth Is the Loneliest Planet,” sounded even more Latin, as it paired acoustic Spanish guitar strumming with heart-piercing electric soloing. (Videos of Morrissey’s three new songs are here.) Morrissey hasn’t stopped attracting new followers, Mexican-American or otherwise; his audience was actually younger than it had been the last time he graced the Bay Area.
After the initial encore of the Smiths’ lullaby “Asleep,” the number of fans leaping onstage to hug their hero suddenly escalated from endearing to overwhelming. Abruptly the band stopped playing and then angrily fled – a mirror of the concert ending captured on the recent Your Arsenal reissue’s DVD. Operatic wailing then aptly washed over the venue’s PA, as if commenting on the set’s conclusion. One could never accuse Morrissey of failing to generate drama.