Morrissey Takes Manhattan With An Uneven Set, But An Admirable Ban On Chicken Fingers

Morrissey is one of those performers where, if you get the chance, you go. Maybe because you’ve seen videos or heard about the man’s transfixing stage presence, or maybe because you know about the intense relationship between his fervent fanbase and himself, and that there’s a sort of necessary pilgrimage in being a Smiths or Morrissey fan, that you have to witness him onstage and witness the people who are there, arms and outstretched and screaming for him after all these years. But, also, Morrissey cancels shows (and whole tours) all the time, so if you get the chance, you go, because who knows when you’ll get another chance. Especially if it’s at Madison Square Garden, with Blondie opening. After a rocky 2014, in which Morrissey canceled a tour due to a cold and evidently had some sort of falling out with Harvest Records, which lead to his new album World Peace Is None Of Your Business being pulled from digital retailers after only three weeks of being available. Morrissey’s a legend, but the fact that he was playing MSG still felt like something of significant magnitude, a moment to witness amidst all the hilarious and frustrating things that normally come along with being a Morrissey fan.

This was a good weekend to be in New York. Following Friday’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, there was a palpable degree of happiness in the city, and this was the night before NYC Pride March. Blondie opened for Morrissey, and in a lot of ways they tapped into that excitement more. Obviously, this is a quintessential NYC artist from back when New York was New York. Hearing them play cuts like “Call Me,” “Heart Of Glass,” and “Rapture” felt like a celebration. These are some of the greatest late night NYC songs ever, born from a downtown that no longer exists and, in 2015, peeling open into stuff that was, well, rapturous. They mixed in more recent material, too, like “A Rose By Any Name,” which is a slick electronic song in the studio but, fleshed out with live instrumentation onstage, felt almost DFA-esque. Debbie Harry turns 70 this week, which aside from being hard to wrap your head around also means she doesn’t have the same range she had during Blondie’s first run, but the band’s muscular arrangements of the classics work well with her current vocal approach — everything still has the impact it’s supposed to, with a few songs benefiting from jubilant extended outros. And Harry is a badass, a legend, a cultural icon. It’s hard to imagine many artists opening for Morrissey and being able to hold their own, but Blondie’s one of the bands that can handle it.

Of course, it’s still a Morrissey gig, and Blondie still had to put up with being an opener at an arena show, with everyone nodding their heads while seated. But later, Morrissey walked onstage, shirtless under a blazer with glittery gold lapels, bowed to his band, bowed to the audience, simply said “It takes a nation of zillions to hold us back” and launched into “The Queen Is Dead.” It was one of the best openers you could ask for at a Morrissey gig — an old favorite but not one of the too-massive ones, played furiously and relentlessly in front of a photo of the Queen giving the finger, and then one of Prince William and Kate Middleton with the caption “United King-Dumb.” (It looked like a shitty meme that’d circulate on your Facebook feed, which made it funnier.)

The first half of the show continued apace from that stunning opener. “Suedehead” followed immediately after, making a perfect one-two to start the show. Morrissey garnered roaring cheers when he said, “It’s a great privilege to be back here in the center of the world with you” and “The U.S. elections are all very well and amusing of course, but there’s only two possible American presidents in my world. One is Jon Stewart and the other is Bill Maher. Otherwise, forget it.” He brought out the deep cut b-side “Ganglord,” as he’s been doing lately, and it was one of the most intense performances of the night.

Eventually, though, Morrissey got in the way of Morrissey, as he does. The rhythm of the set went awry, and never really recovered. “Speedway” was the first warning sign. A not insignificant part of the reason I was eager to see Morrissey was this video, and while not going in expecting “Speedway” to be quite that vicious, the new arrangement is so lackluster. Everything seems to drop out in the verses, leading to passages too quiet and too slow, wrecking what was so great about the intense pulse and drive of older live versions. And then Morrissey has his keyboardist come out and sing the end in Spanish, and while it’s cool that dude got the spotlight and all, it turned one of Moz’s major live staples into a shrug.

Even when it’s Morrissey we’re talking about you’d think there’d be a certain logic to headlining at MSG. Not so much. The second half of the set was loaded with slow songs and new material. A lot of World Peace Is None Of Your Business was quite good. The problem is that people couldn’t or didn’t buy the record. There was a very notable disparity between when Morrissey played stuff like this and the aforementioned highlights, the disparity between watching people in the GA section surge forward reaching for the singer and watching everyone else take their seats for much of the set’s latter half.

Morrissey’s gonna do Morrissey, though, that’s part of what you get with him. During one of the slower songs, I took a walk through the hallways to see if the venue really did go meat-free for the first time ever as Morrissey claimed they would. Several restaurant booths were closed altogether; bars were open and you could buy snacks, but their hot dog grills were off. As I stood there a man with a heavy New Jersey accent approached the counter and asked “You guys got chicken fingers?” “There’s no meat!” the cashier said, shrugging bemusedly. “Somebody told me that but I didn’t believe it. You can’t even sell a hot dog?!” the man continued, clearly beleaguered. “I like his music and I believe in all those things, but I like meat! It tastes good, and I like how it feels when I rip it with my teeth.” There were moments like this that made the whole thing amusing, seeing Moz get his way with MSG and how people reacted. After the concert, I spoke with a woman who was just so inspired by the whole thing: she hates animal cruelty, but hasn’t gone vegan yet, just having vegetarian days here and there. (Sidenote: can you be in Morrissey’s band if you eat meat?)

Eventually Morrissey played “Meat Is Murder,” set to graphic videos of animals in slaughterhouses. That’s where it gets more serious. Moz might inspire eyerolling for his overall persona, but you have to admire his convictions even when he seems sycophantic about particular topics. But there’s something so over-the-top about the approach that made “Meat Is Murder” a final death knell to the dull second half of the set. It might be because the song “Meat Is Murder” isn’t very good; it’s all about message, and you’re being bludgeoned with that message. It takes you out of the concert experience, which is a hard thing to parse. I’m far from the kind of person who thinks “I paid to be entertained” or whatever and doesn’t want musicians to espouse their views onstage, but something about “Meat Is Murder” positioned after such a lackluster run left everything deflated. The night had felt so exciting in the beginning, and ended with a resounding “whatever.”

Until the last two songs of the night, at least: “What She Said” and the sole encore performance, “Now My Heart Is Full.” For close to ten minutes, we were back. People were belting it out melodramatically right there with Morrissey, and he seemed more present, too, than he had even during newer highlights like “Istanbul.” Morrissey’s a complicated performer — not the kind of guy you necessarily want or expect a greatest hits crowd-pleaser kind of set from, but also a guy enamored with pop star history. He knows what he’s doing, and there were large stretches of last night that felt withholding. By the time he half-quoted “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” and “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” in conversation but didn’t play them before the night ended, it was easy to feel like you were being trolled by the dude. Well, at least there was still the obligatory and conciliatory vision of Morrissey removing his shirt and throwing it into the crowd at the end of “Now My Heart Is Full.” He strode deliberately offstage right after, taking with him a glimpse of the greatness he can bring onstage, and a glimpse of how the MSG show felt like an opportunity he only capitalized on halfway.

SETLIST
“The Queen Is Dead”
“Suedehead”
“Staircase At The University”
“Ganglord”
“World Peace Is None Of Your Business”
“Speedway”
“Kiss Me A Lot”
“Alma Matters”
“I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris”
“Everyday Is Like Sunday”
“Istanbul”
“Will Never Marry”
“I Will See You In Far-Off Places”
“Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed”
“Kick The Bride Down the Aisle”
“Neal Cassady Drops Dead”
“The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores”
“The Bullfighter Dies”
“Meat Is Murder”
“What She Said”
“Now My Heart Is Full”