It’s rare (and for a critic, uniquely satisfying) when a single moment from a concert perfectly encapsulates a performer, but one occurred during the opening show of Morrissey’s five-night stand at L.A.’s Wiltern LG Theater. During “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” the former Smiths singer grabbed a fan from the packed orchestra and pulled her onstage and a roadie wrenched her away before she was even able to embrace the singer. To be granted access to happiness, only to have it immediately denied — that pretty much sums up Morrissey’s oeuvre.
With the Smiths and as a solo performer, his songs have been the intensely felt observations of an intelligent, shy and oversensitive postadolescent, cloaked in a dank, oppressively damp English atmosphere. He might be the only performer who can give Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” a run for its money when it comes to luxuriant suffering. But his new album (and first in seven years), “You Are the Quarry” (Sanctuary), reflects his move to Los Angeles. It’s not exactly sunny, but there’s a newfound focus and vitality. He opens the show with “First of the Gang” and its salutation “Los Angeles, you are too hot,” and it’s clear that his live demeanor has lightened as well.
But that doesn’t mean he’s happy. His entrance is prefaced by a five-minute-long laundry list of mankind’s lesser attributes: greed, war, gut-wrenching disappointment, the Jimmy Swaggart Show, Tiananmen Square among them. And the new material can still ask “How Could Anyone Possibly Know How I Feel” and complain that “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores.”
This steadfastness to his persona — defiant in his solitude but desirous of love — is part of his appeal. He playfully teases the adoring aud, telling them he knows they would rather be at the Greek Theater seeing Dave Matthews; archly describing the crowd’s cheers as a “scream of horror”; and stopping “I Have Forgiven Jesus” when the five-piece band fails to find the song’s groove, commenting, “We’re professional, but we have a lot to learn.”
The nearly two-hour set deftly weaves more than half the new album into the set, but the loudest cheers greeted Smiths favorites such as “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” and 1988’s solo “Every Day Is Like Sunday.” His new band is rather anonymous (although Dean Butterworth’s crisp drumming keeps things moving), but the focus of the evening is squarely on Morrissey as he poses and preens his way across the stage, singing his arcing melodies in his bruised croon, sounding both defensive and tender.
If the crowd is not able to embrace him, Morrissey ends his set by embracing them, admitting “I Like You.” Yes, it’s because “you’re not quite right in the head,” but then, he reminds them, “neither am I.”
Morrissey plays Gotham’s Apollo Theater May 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 and headlines this summer’s Lollapalooza tour.