Three songs into his concert Monday night at Neumos, Johnny Marr joked, “Still got it.”
He said he wasn’t talking about himself, but then joked maybe he was.
“Who am I kidding?” he asked the crowd, a sly smile on his face.
It was the kind of disarming but coy quirk that has made Marr a legend in music for three decades, first with the Smiths, and then with a series of other bands. But it was also true — Marr does still have it, which was more than apparent at Neumos.
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He played a short but tight hourlong set that focused on his first-ever solo album but also included a few classics from the Smiths. Though Marr has spent lots of his career playing guitar behind a lead singer — be it Morrissey, or Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock — he commanded the stage, while knocking out the guitar riffs that are his signature.
Marr looked as handsome and boyish as ever and bounced in place during much of the show. He’s one of the few English rock stars of his era who also runs marathons, and who has lived a life without excess. It was the leanness of his guitar playing, which also had no excess, which made the show special, though.
Marr has said with his first solo record he wanted the songs to sound as sharp live as on album, and they did, particularly the riveting title track, “The Messenger.” Before “Lockdown” he said the song was in response to a book that criticized the culture of British coastal towns.
“Those were some of the places I hung out a lot when I was young,” he said, and launched into a biting version of the song.
The Smiths numbers he played were a surprise, simply because they were so powerful without Morrissey. Marr has a strong voice, but nuggets like “Bigmouth Strikes Again” proved that much of the song’s original emotionalism was Marr’s alone.
His encore increased the pace, and a two-minute romp of “I Fought the Law” was an inspired cover. “Getting Away With It,” from his stint in Electronic, was also sharp.
Marr seemed a man at home with his past but also living in the present, as happy to play a song he wrote last year as one he wrote nearly three decades ago. He closed the night with the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” Rather than remind us that the Smiths broke up 26 years ago, the song suggested that Johnny Marr has more to say.
Charles R. Cross: email@example.com