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Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Review: Girl In A Coma & Morrissey Live At The Roundhouse

I happen to think that Morrissey is one of England's great, living geniuses - in the realm of provocative culture, and, more specifically, as a singer-songwriter. His earlier work with seminal band The Smiths created the most significant indie back catalogue of the British 80s, and his own songs, although somewhat patchy or worse (more on this in a minute) at times, have continued the brilliance - "Everyday Is Like Sunday", and "Irish Blood, English Heart", are already modern classics, for instance. Therefore, Eyewear was genuinely thrilled to attend the first night of his week long residency last night (in support of his Greatest Hits, out on February 11) at Camden's fabled Roundhouse (serving only vegetarian food for the week), in London - easily one of the most commodious and clean venues possible (and generously intimate). Crushed up near the front of the Main Space - but out of harm's way (much body surfing and thrashing occurred later on) - I was able to observe, and enjoy, the spectacle.

But before the main event, let me pause to mention the opening act, special guests in from Texas, the three-person Girl In A Coma. Performing from 8.05-8.35 pm, you'd think their role slightly thankless, but the feisty, indie threesome quickly captured the audience's affections, with sonically-dense, alternative guitar rock fusing elements from The Breeders, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, The Cranberries and even 50s rock. They were great - singing and playing with great intensity, and good humour. After the show, I met them, and they signed a copy of their CD, Both Before I'm Gone, for me, which I've been playing today. If anything, it shows them in a different, more stylishly nuanced light. Anyway, they're a cool new act to follow, and I'd recommend their work, highly. They're also incredibly fun, relaxed, and genuine.

Morrissey appeared onstage at around 9 pm - a 20-minute screening of iconic/campy film footage was projected onto a giant sheet beforehand, which covered the stage. Those familiar with the singer's peculiar obsessions would not be surprised to hear that the artists featured included James Dean (Girl In A Coma's album title is from a Dean saying) and The New York Dolls. He played for exactly 90 minutes, including the final, one-song encore, which ended with his shirt off ("The Last of the Famous International Playboys"), and had his fans in his hands. One of them made it onstage mid-way through the show, and held on to him for a minute, whispering in his ear, before leaping back to the throng - Morrissey seemed unconcerned. The set opened with Smiths classic "How Soon Is Now?", and featured just a few others from that older time, emphasising new songs, including "That's How People Grow Up" (he thanked Radio 2 for playing it). Complaining of a "frog in his throat", he was in good form, nonetheless, physically fit, and dramatically active. His backing band (dressed like Prisonbreakers) were short-haired and sinister, and their instruments featured a giant J. Arthur Rank-style gong. Lights were effective, and the backing touch was classic Smiths-era iconography - a triptych of a young Richard Burton, holding a pint glass.

Now, one of the songs that Morrissey chose to perform was "National Front Disco" - easily his most risible, and controversial song. He's been in the news lately for espousing a nostalgic monocultural vision for England. In this, he is paradoxically conservative and radical - as if the wit of Wilde had entered the grumpy ideology of a Betjeman (which makes genetic sense, actually, and is perhaps the war at the core of his caustic, divided heart). That seemed maybe provocative, as did the fascist saluting at one point - which was clearly ironic. However, what most emerges, watching the man live, is how good an old-fashioned entertainer he is - a crooner in the sweating, crowd-pleasing Vegas mold (he obviously studied Elvis and Sinatra in terms of stage presence) - complicated by possessing an explicitly neo-Godot take on the world ("life is a pigsty").

Fabulous, polemical, mixed-up, funny - and designed to offend and charm in equal measure, the showman was disturbing, powerful, and quite impressive. It's a shame the artist's evident openness to divergent talents and styles, and his loathing of draconian leaders (Thatcher, Bush) hasn't yet translated into a more welcoming, multicultural stance, overall. One lives in hope.
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