Despite his proclivity for saying things that produce a collective societal facepalm, Morrissey has maintained an invested, devoted fanbase for close to 40 years. Even in 2017, fans regard him not as a purveyor of musical nostalgia but as a relevant, vital artist whose recorded output and live shows are always worth rapt attention. So when Morrissey played the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday (Sept. 2) evening and focused the set list on his new album Low In High School — only delivering three songs from the Smiths’ justly worshipped catalog and two of his own early solo hits — the crowd wasn’t remotely bothered.
It helps, of course, that the album is a strong, eclectic showing for the British rocker. But what really keeps his fans enamored and coming back for more is simply how good he is live. His sonorous voice has lost none of its depth and richness over the years — even when he’s singing a song that you’re not quite sure you know (such as “The Bullfighter Dies” from 2014’s World Peace Is None of Your Business, a lesser entry in his album catalog that disappeared from streaming services soon after its release), your skin still tingles as his voice sweeps through the room and your soul.
His backing band deserves massive props, too, for its tight, muscular musicianship, which kept the show moving at a brisk pace; there was no clear ‘bathroom or beer’ moment during the set, even though it was heavily weighted toward the new material (the visuals accompanying each song — from vintage smut book covers to cat photos — helped maintain interest as well).
The standout moments, surprisingly, weren’t even Smiths songs. Yes, it was a hoot to hear “Shoplifters of the World” rebooted as “Trump shifters of the world” (paired with photo of Morrissey holding a diapered Baby Trump, a reworking of the cover to his 2009 album Years of Refusal), and “How Soon Is Now” was utterly mesmerizing, from the vertiginous opening guitar notes to the drummer pounding a gong to close it out.
But his cover of the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” was the show’s touching highlight, demonstrating that Morrissey isn’t just an idiosyncratic talent but a top-tier interpreter of other people’s material (it almost makes you wish he’d consider an entire covers record). Plus, his introduction to the tune was Morrissey at his droll best: “This song is dedicated to my good friend Chrissie Behind [Hynde], who is in an asylum. No, she isn’t — she’s at home, KNITTING.”
And that wasn’t the only cover — Morrissey tipped his hat to the late David Cassidy with a brief a cappella run-through of the chorus to The Partridge Family’s 1970 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit “I Think I Love You,” which featured Cassidy on lead, and he opened with Elvis Presley’s “You’ll Be Gone.” Elvis wasn’t a shocker, but did anyone walk into Morrissey’s NYC show expecting him to cover David Cassidy? Absolutely not. But when it’s Morrissey, the unexpected can be counted on.
Closing with a two-song encore of “Suedehead” and his Trump-biting “Shoplifters” rework, Morrissey and his band were ushered offstage by thunderous applause from the satisfied crowd. Even with a 22-song set, the audience would have easily ate up another eight, be they obscurities or well-worn classics. But that’s the glory of Morrissey: When he’s on stage, it truly seems like nothing else matters but his resonant voice and its connection to the audience. And when it comes to live music, what more do you want than that?