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Johnny Marr & James

Sunday,

September 22nd

Sunday, September 22nd

6 pm doors, 7:30 pm show
All ages welcome
$55 advance, $60 day of show, $65 advance 21+ Reserved Balcony, $70 day of show 21+ Reserved Balcony

Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr

At the beginning of 2023, Johnny Marr had all sorts of plans, but marking anniversaries hadn't figured among them. Fresh from a succession of rapturously received shows with The Killers, Johnny had already started to gather songs for his fifth album - a successor to 2022's acclaimed double LP Fever Dreams Pts 1-4. It was his manager who pointed out that he had now been a solo artist for ten years, a stretch of time comfortably in excess of his tenures in The Smiths, Electronic, The The, The Pretenders, Modest Mouse or The Cribs. And although, Marr's storied life in music isn't short of milestones - 2010 Inspiration Award at the Ivor Novellos, an Oscar nomination for his work with Hans Zimmer on Inception; and, lest we forget, an NME Godlike Genius Award in 2013 - he hadn't stopped to consider that the passing of an entire decade might be significant.

The full measure of this extraordinarily fertile period is captured on Spirit Power: The Best Of Johnny Marr, a major new collection curated by Marr encompassing songs from his four top ten solo albums, a scattering of stand-alone singles and two incendiary new cuts, Somewhere and The Answer. Spirit Power presents a composite portrait of an artist with no less a complete ideology than the celebrated co-travellers who inspired him along the way. It's a body of work that mirrors Marr's unquenchable life force, his love of melody and the urge to resist what he calls the 'strummy, age-appropriate transition into mid-tempo middle age.' He elaborates: 'It's a conversation I have from time to time with [Pet Shop Boys'] Chris Lowe, about how much harder it is to write songs that you want to listen to in the daytime. It's easier to do something that's perceived as cool if it's a bit moody. But, for me, the mission with these records was to make songs that you could listen to on the way to school, on the way to the gym, on the way back from work - you know, in the way that you had with, say, Blondie.'

The songs that comprise Spirit Power - sequenced non-chronologically, thus giving a flavour of what you might expect if you were at one of his live shows - are an emphatic fulfilment of that pledge. Among the earliest songs included on this collection is sonorous yet yearning uplift of European Me, a song which saw Marr turn the anglepoise on the space that would over time be filled by several more songs, each explaining to their creator something about where he came from and who he had become. 'Left home a mystery, leave school for poetry,' he sings on New Town Velocity, 'I say goodbye to them and me, mission velocity.'

That liberating sense of simultaneously feeling invisible yet invincible in the big city resonates throughout many of the selections that make up Spirit Power: from

 

2018's Spiral Cities ('On the vertical streets / We go up (up up)') to 2022's Tenement Time ('A ghost through space / Slipping through the crossfire / Look what's coming again / I'm beating that street' ); and perhaps most dizzyingly on Dynamo (2015) - where Marr equates stratospheric surge of new love with the mirror-glass skylines of New York and London. For Spirit Power and Soul - the opening song from 2022's Fever Dreams Pts 1-4 - Marr 'really put a lot of energy into making what I would consider an electro banger.' Other songs, such as Easy Money (2014), came to him when he was out running. 'I wondered whether it was either the most annoying song I could possibly conceive of or really quite brilliant, and I genuinely couldn't work it out until I demoed it on the tour bus. And what swung it was the reaction of [guitarist and co-producer] James Doviak and the crew going, ‘Play the new one, play the new one.''

One of two new songs featured on here, Somewhere sprang into life during Marr's 2022 shows with The Killers and Blondie. 'I've played a lot of arenas over the years, and in terms of songwriting, there's nowhere to hide. For a song to work, it has to be a banger. I know it's almost uncool to think in those terms, but I grew up in a house where my parents listened to Motown, where you couldn't get a song released if it wasn't full of hooks.' The same sense of attack underpins the other new song on Spirit Power. The Answer explodes into life from a spoken word intro delivered by Meredith Sheldon. It's a song, notes Marr, that, would get the approval of his 17 year-old self, mainlining the 'narky energy' of Magazine and Buzzcocks: 'It's taken me a long time to write songs that are led by the singing rather than the guitar, and that's definitely one of them.'

The release of Spirit Power also allows Marr to highlight non-album songs that have gone onto become firm fan favourites. The 2019 single Armatopia, whose adhesively catchy synth hooks act as a Trojan horse for a lyric which addresses the cognitive dissonance of life in the convenience-obsessed developed world as we teeter towards ecological peril. The version of Depeche Mode's I Feel You, released for Record Store Day in 2015, reveals the degree to which he has found his metier as a vocalist of singular expressive power. The Priest is a musical adaptation of Joe Gallagher's eponymous short story (part of an accompanying film co-directed by Marr) voiced by Maxine Peake. To listen to the nocturnal electronic textures that frame Peake's portrayal of its homeless protagonist is to be reminded of a version of the industrial north that looms large in the legacy of artists like Clock DVA and Cabaret Voltaire - 'musicians who I can easily imagine Maxine having worked with had she been that bit older.'

On Spirit Power, it's also The Priest which represents a point of intersection between Johnny Marr's solo work and his other projects during the same period - a period which has seen Marr find himself in demand as a soundtrack composer. After receiving an Oscar nomination for his work with Hans Zimmer on Inception, the two reunited alongside Pharrell Williams for the soundtrack to Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man 2. For Zimmer, the combination of Marr's musical vision and the big screen made sense before the two had even spoken to each other. On the beginning of their work on Inception, Zimmer recounted a phone call with director Christopher Nolan, in which he exclaimed, 'Chris, what do we think of electric guitars and orchestras? Hideous, right? Usually tasteless and pretentious. But... what if, instead of saying ‘Guitar', I said ‘Johnny Marr and orchestra', you wouldn't say ‘no', would you?'

It's a conversation you can see recounted in the foreword to Marr's Guitars - a brand new book written by Marr. Following his 2016 autobiography Set The Boy Free, Johnny describes Marr's Guitars as 'a guitar book for people who wouldn't usually own a guitar book.' Featuring contributions from Noel Gallagher, Bernard Butler and Ed O'Brien, this 'shadow memoir' offers a portal into the symbiotic relationship between Johnny and the guitars that have entered his life, the sounds and songs they teased out of him, and the new directions they opened up: the Epiphone Casino whose tremolo riff helped create How Soon Is Now; the black Gibson Les Paul Standard, made famous by Marc Bolan on Top of the Pops, and Marr's guitar of choice when he rejoined The Pretenders for their triumphant Glastonbury set earlier this year; the Fender Jaguar that yielded Dashboard within an hour or two of its deployment - kick-starting an alliance with Modest Mouse that would result in a US number one album (We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank).

Also featured in Marr's Guitars is the Signature Jaguar made by Fender especially for Marr, which he then used to fulfil his childhood dream of playing the James Bond theme with an orchestra when Hans Zimmer invited him to feature on the soundtrack of the James Bond Movie No Time To Die. This is the guitar Marr used when he played with Billie Eilish on the film's eponymous Oscar-winning title song. Although 38 years separate Eilish and Marr's birthdays, Marr is swift to emphasise that 'Billie might be a pop star but that's secondary to the fact that she's a musician - and that's how we connected. She could have come out of any era and she would have been up there with the very best.'

The same can, of course, be said about Johnny Marr. After forty years as a recording artist, his name beneath a long line of modern standards, it's a legacy he carries lightly. But in December of 2023, after taking to the stage at Manchester's Factory International alongside conductor Fiona Brice and a personally assembled orchestra of 30 musicians from across the North of England, he did so with an extraordinary canon of songs at his disposal: 'I've had two experiences of playing with an orchestra - Hans Zimmer, obviously, and also with Pet Shop Boys - but to actually sing in front of an orchestra playing my own work, that's a first. You can't help feeling a little bit emotional.'

And his 17 year-old self? The teenage guitar aspirant in Wythenshawe restlessly hopping from one band to another in the hope that he might make songs that instil in other people the feelings that his own record collection instilled in him? What would he make of it all? 'Well, you know what teenagers are like,' he smiles. 'They're full of this beautiful, unshakeable self-belief. He might have been like, ‘That sounds about right.' So when I need to summon inspiration, he's still the person to be.'

 

James

James

Once you hit the bliss state, there's no telling when you'll come down. For forty years James have soared a stratosphere or two above alternative music, impervious to the buffering cross-winds of trend and fashion, as loved the morning after as they were the night before. There have been cults and crises, addictions and epiphanies, break-ups and breakdowns, but never once a dent in the power of their thundering sound, or their ability to pen a chorus capable of soundtracking the rapture.

First, James were simply known as Jim. Jim Glennie, that is, convinced by his mate Paul Gilbertson from Manchester's Whalley Range in 1982 to learn bass so they could start a band. Alongside drummer Gavan Whelan they played as Venereal And The Diseases, Volume Distortion and Model Team - and supported The Fall at Manchester Polytechnic - before recruiting a dancer named Tim Booth, soon promoted to singer. Becoming James, they hovered around the hem of the ‘80s Manchester scene, discovered at a Hacienda gig by Tony Wilson for two EPs on Factory - 1983's Jimone and, two years of liver issues for Booth later, James II - and selected to support The Smiths in 1985.

Signing to Sire and replacing Gilbertson with guitarist Larry Gott, they released their debut album Stutter in 1986, an enigmatic folk-rock record produced by Patti Smith's guitarist Lenny Kaye, lashing manic post-punk and dark pagan tones to elaborate, literate songwriting redolent of Smith, REM, The Teardrop Explodes, Wire, Talking Heads and The Smiths. Already James were building a reputation as lyricists of depth and imagination. ‘Skullduggery' crawled with brain-eating insects, metaphors for possession and insanity. The demented ‘Summer Song' viewed mankind's ecological devastation through the eyes of a reincarnated child. Future live mainstay ‘Johnny Yen' was a compulsive portrait of these tortured outsider artists as young men. Sire deemed the album 'too English', but its eccentricity was the better part of its copious charm.

1988's folk-pop second album Strip-mine swerved into a more commercial lane - lead single ‘What For' was even originally written for Eurovision, which is currently making for an entertaining alternate universe somewhere. Delving further into Afrobeat and the gleaming melodicism of the rising indie pop scene, the album focussed the insightful global gaze that would characterise James's entire career. Universal themes such as grief, greed, selfishness and environmental decay materialised as easily in songs about a fearful tribe watching a drowning from a tropical beach (‘Ya Ho'), the pure air rising above Manchester's smog (‘What For') and governmental misinformation in the wake of Chernobyl (‘Charlie Dance').

That there was also a song about addiction - ‘Not There' concerned the alcohol issues which had led to Gilberton's departure - pointed to James's unique position in the late-‘80s Manchester scene. Thanks to an ardent live following they'd become the quintessential t-shirt band, popular enough to successfully self-release (alongside Rough Trade) a 1989 live album winkingly titled One Man Clapping. As Madchester took off - now on Fontana and transformed into a powerhouse seven-piece with the departure of Whelan and the arrival of Saul Davies (guitar, violin, percussion), Mark Hunter (keyboards), Andy Diagram (trumpet, percussion) and David Baynton-Power (drums) - they toured with both The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays in support and helped define the era with their anthemic breakthrough Top 40 hits around 1990's gold-selling third album Gold Mother: ‘How Was It For You', ‘Lose Control', the house-indebted ‘Come Home'.

Yet saucer-eyed hedonism, back then at least, wasn't James's scene; in the mid-‘80s Booth and Glennie had been members of the Lifewave sect which advocated strict abstinence. And lyrically they were a world apart from Inspiral Carpets. Gold Mother featured songs about the 1989 Secrets Act (‘Government Walls'), religious hypocrisy (‘God Only Knows') and the downside of chem-sex (‘How Was It For You'). While their biggest hit, a re-recording of their laid-back 1989 single ‘Sit Down' amped up for the raveheads of 1991, spoke of madness, spiritual seeking, loneliness and meditation in the age of the kinky afro and the twisted melon.

‘Sit Down' took a seat at Number Two, and in the hearts of the indie nation. Bliss state achieved; James have barely returned to earth since. Their lavish, million-selling fourth album Seven (1992) gave them two further Top Twenty hits in ‘Sound' and ‘Born Of Frustration' and elevated them into a stratospheric echelon of alternative rock befitting its religious and political subtexts and profound new sound, mentioned in the same breaths as Simple Minds, The Bad Seeds and U2. That summer they played to 30,000 people at Alton Towers; the following year they cemented their position with Laid, the first of five James albums produced, at least in part, by Brian Eno. The headboard-banging, throes-of-ecstasy title track woke America to the tune of a million album sales and became an anthem for every US college kid and the focus track of the American Pie movie phenomenon. Along with spiritual pop titan ‘Sometimes (Lester Piggott)', it also proved the perfect soundtrack to Booth's famous onstage spirit dancing.

Despite its euphoric marquee melodies and flagrant pop leanings, Laid contained some of James's bleakest subject matter yet: child abuse on ‘Lullaby', depression on ‘Everybody Knows' and the kidnappings of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan on ‘One Of The Three'. It had a dark sister, too. Recorded alongside Laid and originally intended to be released simultaneously, the experimental dance soundscapes of Wah Wah eventually emerged on Mercury Records in 1994, pieced together from lengthy improvised jams - the sort of endless, anything-goes sonic explorations where James songs often gestated - and given Eno and co-producer Markus Dravs' electronic and ambient master touch.

The brainless mainstream holds many potholes for deep-thinking, soul-searching rockers like James. The departure of Gott, a £250,000 tax bill and Booth's urge to record an album with US composer Angelo Badalamenti (1996's Booth And The Bad Angel) kept the band simmering for several years until 1997's Whiplash staged a barnstorming comeback, propelled by more mountain-cracking choruses in ‘She's A Star' and ‘Tomorrow' and an artful merging of the folk rock, dub, industrial and electronica spread across Laid and Wah Wah. Within its heady grooves, commercialism and capitalism locked horns with mother earth while Booth looked on, despairing in all but the vast possibilities of the human spirit: 'I don't like the world I see so I'll avert my gaze to the TV,' he sang on ‘Greenpeace'. 'I can't stop the world from burning'.
Having sustained a neck injury dancing onstage during the Whiplash tour, Booth watched just as ruefully from his own recuperation tour bus as his bandmates, having decided to let their hair way down following their Stateside success, rampaged around the 1997 Lollapalooza tour, too drunk and techno-crazed to use the travelling studio to work on a follow-up. A celebrated The Best Of compilation plugged the gap in 1998, going triple platinum and giving James their first UK Number One album. With Adrian Oxaal and Michael Kulas replacing Gott, it was a more dislocated James who recorded 1999's Millionaires amid much in-fighting and walk-outs. Miraculously, the album itself contained only hairline fractures: 'Hanging on through late December,' Booth sang in ‘I Know What I'm Here For', considering his own departure. Instead, where once Booth's lyrical lens might have lingered on the wrecked aftermath of relationships, ‘Just Like Fred Astaire' celebrated the disorientating love to be had in our war-torn world of woes, and James united to bite back against any remaining haters on the brilliant, chant-along ‘We're Going To Miss You'.

The composite image of the faces of all seven members of James blended into one which graced the cover of 2001's Pleased To Meet You suggested further unity, but appearances were deceiving. The title was a wry acknowledgement that James had reached the end of a cycle and its stadium rock vignettes - an alcoholic saves a drowning woman in ‘Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)'; a world full of addicts parades by on ‘Junkie' - reflected the album's scorn for what Booth described as 'habits, addictions, impulses that we can't control'. However autobiographical such reflections were for the band, Booth left in 2002 to explore a solo career, acting and alternative therapies and, for six years, James mulled over their mistakes. Some cleaned up, some settled down. All grew to miss the bliss state.

Thankfully, a high like that wasn't so easily dissipated. When the Laid-era line-up of James reformed for 2008's Hey Ma, put together from 120 potential songs and with their knack for a towering indie-rock chorus undimmed, their fanbase was faithfully waiting. As if no time had passed, the record slid straight into the Top Ten, launching one of the most creatively and commercially fulfilling reunions in rock history.

There was much to catch up on. Hey Ma reflected on the changed landscapes both political - 9/11, Iraq, religious extremism, fake news, the capitalist war machine - and personal. Booth's second son was lifted aloft on ‘Bubbles'; the failings and regrets of middle-age raked through on ‘Waterfall', ‘Semaphore' and ‘I Wanna Go Home'. Over two 2010 mini albums - the upbeat The Night Before and its gentler, introspective counterpart The Morning After - they tried their hands at emerging styles such as space rock, dream pop and millennial psych. On a 2011 tour they also first played alongside an orchestra and choir, a format they return to for shows to mark their 40th anniversary this summer.
2014's 13th album came steeped in tragedy. Inspired by the death of Booth's mother and his best friend Gabrielle Roth and with his lyrics written by instinct in a dream state, the record was named La Petite Mort - the French phrase for the ‘little death' in the wake of orgasm - to reflect its self-proclaimed desire to find joy in mortality and 'create art from our pain'. Between moments of mournful elegance like ‘All In My Mind' ('dead don't stay dead') there was plentiful opportunity here to dance away the heartache. ‘Moving On' was an exuberant portrait of Booth's last days with his mother, ‘All I'm Saying' a disco retelling of Roth visiting Booth in a dream. And, at the lustier end of the emotional spectrum, the priapic ‘Curse Curse' was drenched in EDM and tequila.

Girl At The End Of The World (2016) continued La Petite Mort's shift towards the electronic anthem pop of Elbow or Coldplay, while also dabbling in krautrock, techno and Killers synthrock. It returned James to (almost) the top of the charts, narrowly robbed of Number One by Adele's 25, and world events would soon conspire to make them as freshly relevant culturally as they were commercially.

When it wasn't breaking hearts with ‘Coming Home (Pt. 2)', Booth's apology song to his son for all the missed birthdays and Father's Day FaceTimes caused by his relentless touring schedule, 2018's Living In Extraordinary Times was amongst rock's most incisive overviews of the turbulent age of border walls, voter suppression, Black Lives Matter and 'white fascists in the White House'. And 2021's all-killer All The Colours Of You - produced by Jacknife Lee - was its most magnificent pandemic album. Having lost his father-in-law during lockdown and fled his Topanga Canyon home for fear of LA fires, Booth wrote from the sharp edge of Covid, climate change and Trump's AmeriKKKa. ‘Miss America' and the title track lamented the ideological descent of the once proud democracy he loved calling home. ‘Beautiful Beaches' concerned an apocalyptic dream vision of a fire-ravaged California which came true the very next day. And the stirring song-poem ‘Wherever It Takes Us' placed the listener in the middle of the George Floyd riots, following a protester as - like the rest of us during lockdown - she left the real world behind and dissolved into the digital multiverse.

As James hit their 40th anniversary in 2023 as inspired as ever, they tackled inevitable calls for a greatest hits set by ambitiously and creatively reworking their back catalogue with arranger Joe Duddell - hits, b-sides and obscure favourites - for an orchestral tour with the Orca22 orchestra and the Manchester Inspirational Voices choir. These phenomenal reinterpretations were released as a studio album Be Opened by the Wonderful in June, the latest in an unbroken run of 15 Top Twenty albums since 1990.

At the same time, between orchestral shows, they received The PRS for Music Icon Award at the prestigious Ivor Novello Awards, a testament to their enduring influence and contribution to British song writing and they worked up their 18th album Yummy which reached #1 in the UK Albums Chart, their first studio album to do so. One of their most prescient releases, Yummy deals with politics, AI and conspiracy theories, and documents the creative process of a band who continues to evolve and defy expectations. Best described by UK music bible MOJO: 'after 18 LPs and over four interrupted decades at the coalface, James are still re-inventing themselves'.

James' second era has seen them become a global phenomenon, growing strong fanbases as far afield as Mexico, Chile, Greece and Portugal. Meanwhile, the unmissable James live experience has been ever-expanding. With no two shows ever the same, setlists changing each night and the biggest hits sometimes jettisoned in favour of rarities and b-sides, each James gig is a unique, challenging and uncompromising fan experience, and marching to their own beat has only made their fans more devoted. Their most recent arena tour was the biggest selling to date, and their forthcoming dates sold out inside six hours.

Still every bit as popular, adventurous, melodically gifted and politically eviscerating as ever, James now celebrate forty years of sonic exorcism and emotional transcendence with ‘Be Opened By The Wonderful', an album of orchestral re-recordings of 20 select tracks from the band's formidable catalogue. And wherever James's next forty years of bliss state takes us, we're all in.

This year, the band embarks on their largest UK Arena tour to date, gracing the stage of the new 20,000-capacity Co Op Live arena in Manchester and concluding at The O2 in London. Following the tour, fans can anticipate captivating performances in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, and immediately before launching their US tour in September, James will headline a main slot at the legendary Rock in Rio festival in Brazil.

 

 

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