Story by Brad Walseth"We're gonna do it our way, yes our way..." members of the bemused audience grinned and grimaced as the theme song from the Laverne and Shirley television show blared from the P.A. just ahead of the appearance of the evening's special visitor to the city of beer and bratwurst - alternative icon/singer/songwriter Morrissey. And the suave gangster of song did nothing to disappoint the assembled fans as he did it his way throughout an enjoyable concert event Saturday night at Milwaukee's Eagles Ballroom.
Photos by Phil Bonyata
Like a boxer in a ferocious final round flurry, the band didn't pull any punches as they immediately hammered the crowd smack in the chops with a hard right version of The Smith's classic "How Soon is Now" (known to a new generation as the theme song for the WB's "Charmed") that left no doubt that the patron saint of the oppressed and dispossessed had not mellowed despite his (distressingly out of character) relocation from dreary Manchester to loftier digs in L.A. In especially fine voice, the nattily dressed crooner sashayed about the stage, exhibiting a smooth, almost Anthony Newley-like, theatrical stage presence and empathetic audience connection, while behind him his hard-hitting band provided the muscle like a cadre of leg breaking Kray Gang enforcers collecting the sugar.
Despite an unwieldy gong that never seemed to work quite right, this was no half-hearted version of the Gong Show. Essentially a production meant to promote You Are the Quarry, the song choices on this night veered primarily toward that recent release with mostly positive results. Winners among the latest album cuts performed included the cheeky "First of the Gang to Die," audience pleaser "I Like You" ("because you're not right in the head"), a shimmering "I Have Forgiven Jesus," and the stellar single "Irish Blood, English Heart" with its lines about wishing to be "standing by the flag not feeling shameful" hitting especially close to home these days here in America. However, some of the other songs from Quarry, like "The World is Full of Crashing Bores" and "Don't Make Fun of Daddy's Voice" - while certainly not falling flat (a tribute to the singer's sincerity of expression and the commitment by the band to the music), paled somewhat when compared to the many great songs in the Morrissey/Smiths' canon.
Eschewed were much of the Smiths' output, along with such solo favorites as "The Last of the Famous, International Playboys," "Our Frank," "Boy Racer," "Tomorrow," and most inexplicably the brilliant "Suedehead." However, in turn, the crowd was treated to powerfully emotional and energetic versions of songs from throughout Moz's career: a heartfelt "November Spawned a Monster" (complete with Boz Borrell clarinet interlude), as well as the overlooked "Such a Big Difference" (both culled from 1990's Bona Drag), and the airy "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get" (from the 1994 release Vauxhall and I) Nor was the important 1980's Smiths era completely ignored, as the band rampaged through a blazing, blistering version of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" - churning the crowd into a joyous frenzy, as well as a gut-wrenching, tear-soaked version of "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me," where Morrissey's intensely personal vocal performance surprisingly put the original recording to shame.
Throughout the concert, the notoriously shy and sensitive front man seemed to be in good cheer, whether throwing his shirts to the audience, dodging flowers thrown in his direction, or graciously shaking hands with as many fans as he could. Displaying a keen wit, he jokingly introduced his band as being (now deceased, former pop star and first openly gay rock singer) Jobriath's former backing band, bashed Bush, and Cheney and wife as "really not nice people" and wryly asked the audience if Milwaukee was most proud of being the home to "Laverne and Shirley," "Happy Days," or serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
However, in an evening of highlights, the centerpiece may have been the audience singalong on "Everyday is Like Sunday." Listening as the crowd sang the bleak words they knew so well along with their hero, I flashed back to when I was a rebellious youth, skipping Sunday school and using my collection money to buy candy, and a wave of deep emotions passed over me. I realized then that the primary appeal of Morrissey is not only his expressive melodies, intelligent and searching lyrics (so rare in these days of brainless, prefabricated and meaningless music), or his original singing style, but that in taking his brave posture as the shy, sensitive, yet rebellious outsider who dares to speak out against oppression and injustice, he has touched a nerve in many of us shy, sensitive, yet rebellious outsiders who linger in the shadows outside the mainstream even as we have grown older. The plaintive voice we hear running through his songs rings true - we recognize the painful feelings of isolation, loneliness, anger and rejection and know that there is an essential honesty about what he is communicating that can't be faked. And we are drawn to it. A whole crowd of us, sensing a momentary feeling of shared communication and community before we return to a world that marginalizes and seeks to destroy those who differ from the enforced societal beliefs and norms.
The fairly concise set was concluded with a single encore - The Smiths' classic "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," and the singer quietly and humbly sauntered off the stage before the song ended, leaving the band to finish up. As the crowd filtered out - their shiftless bodies dispersing back into the shadows, old blue-eyed crooner Sinatra's "My Way" filled the air - an appropriate send off for an artist who, in the course of a long and successful career, still continues to entertain, comfort and inspire, while doing it his own way.
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