The man once voted ‘greatest living Mancunian’, Morrissey, returned to his home town this weekend after four years away for his only UK gig of 2016 at a packed out and meat-free Manchester Arena. A palpable sense of occasion hung over the city in the days leading up to the show, with Salford Lads’ Club opening a pop-up store in his honour and the streets being crammed with devotees sporting quiffs, Smiths t-shirts and gladioli.
The man himself arrived onstage after opening act Damien Dempsey and the customary pre-show video compilation, resplendent in a blazer with no shirt, chest decked out in an array of necklaces and somewhat worryingly, a large medical plaster. Set opener Suedehead was a whirl of microphone cord whipping and vibrato vocals, complete with ad-libbed references to ‘the Stretford gloom’. That would not be the only reference made to the location of the show: Morrissey pondered aloud why he had not been consulted on the upcoming mayoral election, to loud cheers. Despite these local references, the set had a markedly cosmopolitan feel. Paris, Istanbul, a host of Spanish cities, Rome and ‘far-off places’ were all name checked, whilst the terrifying underworld of Victorian Whitechapel was evoked in show highlight Jack the Ripper, Moz delivering this fan favourite from behind a cloud of dry ice.
More serious socio-political commentary followed the reference to the Manchester mayoralty, with World Peace is None of Your Business being prefaced with the statement that ‘sportswomen/sportsmen/hairdressers/cows/badgers do not start wars. Politicians start wars. And they love it!’. In this age of Black Lives Matter and the death of Dalian Atkinson, lyrics such as ‘police will stun you with their stun guns/or they’ll disable you with tasers’ strike a chord with the malaise felt around the world, as does Ganglord, which was accompanied by disturbing footage of American police brutality. Even more gut-wrenching visuals were shown on the screen during Meat is Murder, with a harrowing film of animals being abused and killed in slaughterhouse emphasising Morrissey’s claims that people don’t care about animal rights because it isn’t them being killed (somewhat controversially, the film had subtitles such as ‘branding Holocaust’ in twin English and Hebrew). It’s almost a cliché to mention this when reviewing Morrissey shows, but it is almost inevitable that some of the carnivorous sections of the crowd will have reviewed their ethical and dietary choices following this gig.
These hard-hitting statements are just one of the ways Morrissey refuses to play the rules usually adhered to by artists at his stage of their career playing to arenas. The other is his eschewing of a greatest-hit style setlist for one that instead took in rarities (It’s Hard to Walk Tall When You’re Small) and lesser-known singles (Ouija Board, Ouija Board, All You Need Is Me). Despite the inclusion of Everyday Is Like Sunday (containing a bizarre lyrical interpolation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Quando, Quando, Quando) and a raucous airing of What She Said, the evening could have been improved with one more big track, something along the lines of Now My Heart Is Full or a better-known Smiths classic.
The material chosen certainly played to the strengths of Morrissey’s faithful touring band. They have previously attracted criticism for their tendency towards chugging, pedestrian rock, but on this occasion, they showcased their versatility. Multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Manzur played everything from flamenco guitar to digeridoo and provided Spanish vocals for the dénouement of Speedway. His compatriot, Boz Boorer, Morrissey’s longest serving sidekick, traded his guitar for a clarinet for a swooning I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris and even had a bash at the drums on the aforementioned Speedway.
One of the most moving parts of the evening was the elegiac Oboe Concerto, dedicated to a list of the lost from this ‘year of the reaper’, namely Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne, Muhammad Ali and Prince. Hearing a man who has notably struggled with serious health conditions in recent years singing somewhat wearily about how ‘all the best ones are dead’ was certainly a sobering experience. Although these health concerns have slowed the man down (by his own admission), they have not impeded his ability to deliver an enthralling live show, as evidenced by a final encore blast through Irish Blood, English Heart, culminating with a topless Moz tossing his shirt to the baying crowd as the guitars built to a crescendo. It’s safe to say that not all the best ones are dead.