Morrissey Previews New Album at U.S. Tour Opener in Portland on Halloween
There was ample opportunity for Morrissey to do something a little extra special for the opening night of his latest U.S. tour. The revered singer-songwriter was, after all, kicking off a run of 16 shows at a historic venue -- the almost 90-year-old Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, in Portland, Ore. -- on Halloween.
Yet, outside of the majority of his longtime backing band sporting long tunics and an array of material from his forthcoming album Low In High School, the two-hour performance stuck to the tried and true. There was the same pre-show YouTube playlist featuring clips of the Ramones, Georgie Fame, Judy Garland and the New York Dolls that he’s used for a few years, as well as a shocking montage of footage of animals being slaughtered, to accompany a fiercely discordant rendition of The Smiths classic “Meat Is Murder.”
And there was Morrissey’s quaintly awkward stage banter that ranged from the sweet (“They say that after awhile you begin to resemble your audience... I should be so lucky”) to the slightly political. He referenced the current push for Catalonian independence in his intro for “The Bullfighter Dies,” a track from his 2014 album World Peace Is None Of Your Business, saying that it was “the least of Spain’s problems.”
The surprises may have been few, but that hardly diminished what was a fantastic set by the 58-year-old Mancunian. Even though it has thickened around the edges, his voice sounded marvelous throughout, maintaining a rich, chocolate-y tone that added some welcome maturity to the few Smiths songs he dotted the setlist with (“I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish,” “Shoplifters Of The World Unite,” and “How Soon Is Now?” alongside “Meat Is Murder”).
The heart of the set was the material from Low In High School that most of the fans in attendance were hearing for the first time. Morrissey and his backing band approached the songs somewhat gingerly, apparently not wanting to leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouth. They needn’t have worried: While not a roaring return to the heights of his ‘90s heyday, the album mixes together Morrissey’s sexually charged bravado as on “When You Open Your Legs” with a more wistful, almost nostalgic spirit. The latter mood was presented with high drama and swelling instrumentation on the yearning “Home Is A Question Mark,” and the almost baroque single “Spent The Day In Bed” -- on sale at the merch booth were pillowcases and eye masks brandished with that song title, naturally.
Perhaps wisely, Morrissey left a couple of potentially controversial statements from his new LP off the setlist: “The Girl From Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel” and album closer “Israel.” But he didn’t entirely shy away from making his voice heard about hot-button issues. In introducing “Meat Is Murder,” he chided the city of Portland for being much like the rest of the world with its omnipresent ads for “dead birds, dead animals, [and] dead fish.” He also twisted the title of “Shoplifters” to sing it as “Trump-shifters of the world,” with the cover of his 2009 album Years of Refusal projected above the stage with the President’s face replacing that of the infant tucked into his arm.
Next to the gruesome animal footage he showed, the hardest moment to sit through was the montage of police brutality put together to accompany the band’s take on “Ganglord” (a B-side found on the ‘09 collection Swords). The lyrics of the song made a strong enough statement -- ”the headless pack are back/ small boy jokes and loaded guns” -- but he drove the point in deeper by pairing with clips of the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott and an array of other shocking acts of violence.
If those portions of the show ruffled the feathers of anyone in the audience, they either left quietly or kept their opposition to themselves. Considering Morrissey’s audience and the liberal-leaning town he was performing in, that’s not terribly unexpected -- though several folks did avert their eyes during “Meat Is Murder." Instead, the packed house was filled with the reverence that an artist of his stature has accumulated, in the 30+ years since the release of the first Smiths single.
The crowd acted appropriately and predictably, warmly greeting the new songs and roaring for classic material like “Suedehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” the singles from his 1988 solo debut Viva Hate. A couple of daring young women even tried to storm the stage towards the end of the evening, only to be deposited back into the audience by the hulking security guards flanking the stage. The noticeable lift that rippled through the room came via a couple of unpredicted set list choices: the gorgeously romantic “Speedway” (which closes 1994's Vauxhall and I) and a jangling cover of The Pretenders’ top 5 Hot 100 hit “Back On The Chain Gang,” which Morrissey sweetly dedicated to his friend Chrissie Hynde “because she wrote it.”
What most of the attendees didn’t do was put much effort into celebrating the holiday. There was the expectation of a room filled with folks in Morrissey cosplay mode. Yet outside of a woman with a ouija board hanging from her neck and her friend with a calendar upon which every day was listed as Sunday, most folks stuck to their street clothes or anachronistic costumes, like a couple dressed as Fred and Velma from Scooby Doo -- not a pocketful of daffodils nor an unnecessary hearing aide in sight. Morrissey may be starting to resemble his audience more these days, but his fans have apparently given up trying to keep up with him.