Morrissey at the House of Blues Chicago

By Mark Guarino

What happens when a celebrated chronicler of romantic alienation hits 45? That was a theme of Saturday’s show by Morrissey, the former frontman of The Smiths, in retrospect one of the most influential British bands of the ‘80s.

Today, Morrissey is no less the self-imposed tragic figure his songbook so articulately portrays. The difference between then and now is how it manifests itself. Dressed in a sleek suit and lightly whipping his microphone cord left and right, Morrissey struck poses of studied flamboyance after all these years. In front of a sold-out crowd of fiercely loyal devotees from back in the day (he was stage rushed twice), it was pure role playing with a bit of Vegas spunk.

The irony was not lost that, for someone whose songs paint the picture of the ultimate outsider, Morrissey’s show at the House of Blues was part of a major corporate blitz to herald a new credit card. It is also reportedly his only U.S. show this summer. To accompany the release of “You Are the Quarry” (Sanctuary/Attack), his best album in over a decade, it was announced he would headline Lollapalooza this summer, but that festival was recently cancelled due to poor ticket sales.

The 17-song, 75-minute set was time enough for Morrissey to hit all his expected notes. A lifelong vegetarian (the best Smiths album is titled “Meat is Murder”), he reminded the crowd that Chicago is home to the first McDonald’s. He also polled the crowd on who would be voting for Pres. Bush. And having this year encouraged his heroes the New York Dolls to reunite (before The Smiths, he was president of their English fan club), he dedicated the show to Dolls bassist Arthur Kane, who died of leukemia last Tuesday.

His interjections had charm and grace. With his five-piece band, Morrissey visited his Smiths and solo catalogs, picking songs that weren’t so obvious. Each was sculpted with carefully wrought hand gestures, accentuating each line. Which, for songs like “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” — romance in death — and the newer “I Have Forgiven Jesus” — angst for being born mortal — perfectly suited their articulate blood rich sentiments. Morrissey is among the most unique characters in rock and there’s little doubt the high emotions of these songs would sound wooden coming from anyone else.

Although his band countered Morrissey’s effortless croon with harmless jangle pop, what was missing was the rough muscular playing formerly provided by Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. There were not many of those explosive moments, except at the end with the driving rock of the recent B-side “Don’t Make Fun of Daddy’s Voice” and then “Irish Blood, English Heart.” When that last song ended, Morrissey ripped off his shirt and flung it into the crowd and exited, giving what came before a definite period.

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