Fresh from playing the Coachella Music Fest, Johnny Marr dropped in five songs by his old band the Smiths at the Varsity Theater on Tuesday./ Photo by Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times

Fresh from playing the Coachella Music Fest, Johnny Marr dropped in five songs by his old band the Smiths at the Varsity Theater on Tuesday./ Photo by Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times


In a very British sort of way, Tuesday’s 85-minute performance by Johnny Marr never really reached a feverish pitch or boiled over emotionally, but it was nonetheless steady and charming throughout.

The former Smiths guitarist – on his first U.S. tour as a frontman after three decades in music – had a sturdy if a bit nondescript three-piece backing band with him, and he had one mighty deep catalog of songs from which to pull. On par with much of his best-know stuff were the tracks from his new album, “The Messenger.” The newbies actually provided some of the feistiest and most impressive moments in the nearly sold-out show, starting with the urgent opener “The Right Thing Right.” From there, he judiciously alternated between new and old. He went straight into the Smiths’ “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” for the second song, followed by a nailed-it-tight version of the infectious, teen-angsty single “Upstarts.” Other highlights from the new record included the very Smiths-like, vaguely disco-rocky title track and the guns-blazing, punky rocker “I Want the Heartbeat,” the latter saved for a pre-encore finale.

One advantage the new songs had over the Smiths’ tunes was the fact that they were written in Marr’s voice, which is totally fine and even better than a lot of today’s full-time Britrock frontmen – but it’s not Morrissey’s. It took a while to get used to him singing Moz’s parts, whose distinctiveness would be hard for anyone to pull off. He didn’t fare much better filling in for Bernard Sumner in “Forbidden City” and “Getting Away with It,” the two songs pulled in from their ‘90s duo Electronic – although just hearing them reiterated that those were some pretty damn fine tunes.

The Smiths songs toward the end of the show -- including “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and the encore finale “How Soon Is Now?” -- came off best because they were as much a showcase for Marr’s own distinctive talent as Morrissey’s. He dedicated “Bigmouth” to all the fans and guitar geeks who turned out earlier in the day at Twin/Town Guitars near Uptown, where he gave a little demonstration and then reportedly spent a good two hours cordially talking and posing for pictures. That was just one of several ways he showed a little extra love for his surroundings.

“This is a really cool place,” he commented mid-show about the Varsity, snappishly adding, “but then, you already knew that.” At the start of the encore, he alluded to a Minneapolis rocker “who’s one of my favorite musicians,” which turned out to be Jordan Gatesmith. The 21-year-old Howler frontman – who dates Marr’s daughter, and has a cultish following in England -- came out and added guitar and vocals to a spikey version of “I Fought the Law.”

“How Soon Is Now?” not only made for the perfect finish because it’s one of the Smiths' best-known hits. It’s also a bona-fide Johnny Marr masterpiece. Seeing the man himself pull off those moody, echoy, spine-shivery guitar parts in person was something of an eureka moment, alone worth the price of admission. Here's the full set list:

The Right Thing Right   /  Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before  /  Upstarts  /  Sun and Moon  /  There Is a Light That Never Goes Out  /  Forbidden City  /  London  /  Lockdown  /  The Messenger  /  Generate! Generate!  /  Say Demesne  /  Bigmouth Strikes Again  /  Word Starts Attack  /  New Town Velocity  /  I Want the Heartbeat    ENCORE: I Fought the Law  /  Getting Away With It  /  How Soon Is Now?


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