A Night with the Johnny Marr Orchestra
Aviva Studios Manchester
Thursday 7 December 2023
Johnny Marr comes home to celebrate 10 years as a solo artist by playing the first-ever rock gig at Aviva Studios….with a 30-piece orchestra.
If someone had told a boy playing his guitar in a Wythenshawe council house that one day he would play the first rock gig in Manchester’s newest arts venue with a 30-piece orchestra he would have laughed at you. Yet that’s exactly what Johnny Marr did as he marked a decade as a solo artist in style, but then he decided to really go for it as he added strings and brass onto his work and The Smiths classics.
Marr had always been a restless soul creatively but when it was announced he was fronting an orchestra it seemed a big risk. As a sort of comfort blanket Marr retained his core band of the last decade, with the addition of his son Nile on guitar, but he then stepped into the unknown as conductor Fiona Brice raised her baton. Tonight in this huge space with high ceilings that was perfect for a spectacular light show it was a mix of his solo work with some old favourites from his days in Manchester’s greatest band, and tunes from when he was a musical gun for hire.
The vastness of the hall underlined why Marr needed Brice’s orchestra to add depth and texture, but the spaces in Day in Day Out offered a clearer vision of how rock and classical can mix as Marr pulled off the first of many top-class solos. This was the first ever rock gig in this £240 million venue, and proud Manc Marr who had just turned 60 seemed a little overwhelmed by making some local history and suggested that we were all privileged to be part of it.
He introduced a punchy New Town Velocity as a song about wandering through Manchester in 1979 with his then-girlfriend as the horns added to an already strong tune. The strings intro into the next song foxed most people before it became the iconic riff to How Soon Is Now, and the camera phones were straight out proving it’s not just teens who can’t live without their screens. Marr was gleefully throwing shapes, and this was the moment when it became clear that he’d made this bold collaboration work.
When a picture of Bernard Sumner and Marr was projected onto the big screen behind the orchestra it was time to go back to his days with Electronic, and the sparseness of Get The Message allowed the strong string section to shine. Brice pushed her mix of experienced musicians and some hot new players through a long intro to Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved that caught its delicate beauty as vintage photos of Manchester in the seventies when he was growing up were projected. It couldn’t have been more old school Manc if it had started raining in the hall and a boy with rickets had brought a whippet on.
Marr introduced the breezy pop of Hi Hello as being for ‘everybody who has somebody and those that don’t’, and it took some balls to stand up in front of thousands of people with just an acoustic guitar and an orchestra to do Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want. On a night with some moments of great beauty, this was most moving, as the horn section beautifully played the melody, and fans at very different stages of their lives sang along softly to those wistful lyrics The set closed with another Electronic classic, Getting Away With It, which Marr recalled he’d written with Sumner, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant in the Hacienda only a few hundred yards away. As photos of ravers from the Hacienda’s glory days came on the screen you wondered how many of the people grooving along were veterans of that legendary club.
The crowd let rip during an encore of Panic as indie kids young and old gleefully pledged to hang the blessed DJ, but inevitably it all led to There Is A Light That Never Goes Out as the mass singalong reverberated high into the rafters of this vast space. An older woman next to me defiantly raged against the dying of the light belting out the words as a guy in front of us who wasn’t born when this masterpiece was recorded ecstatically waved his arms in the air. Marr is a man who always had class, and as he took the applause it was incredibly touching that his best mate Andy Rourke’s photo was on the screen as a tribute.
Aviva Studios say they are about community, and a night where strangers unselfconsciously bonded through the visceral power of Johnny Marr’s music was a fitting way to end a night that proved to be historic in so many ways.
You can follow Johnny Marr on Facebook and Twitter.
Words by Paul Clarke, you can see his author profile here
Photos by Jack Flynn. You can find more from him on his authors archive, and @jackflynnphoto on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as well as his photography website.
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