Monday 11 December 2023

The Johnny Marr Orchestra - Manchester Aviva Studios - 7th December 2023

Johnny Marr has proved unstoppable this year - juggling multiple projects and leaving an indelible mark on the music scene. From joining The Pretenders at Glastonbury to releasing a photography book and a Greatest Hits album, his relentless creativity and dedication has made it a truly prolific and unforgettable 2023 for the legendary guitarist. To commemorate his tenth anniversary as a solo artist, Johnny has just performed two homecoming concerts at Manchester’s Factory International Aviva Studios, where him and his band were joined by a 30-piece orchestra. Led by conductor Fiona Brice, the orchestra was assembled by Johnny himself and composed of musicians from across the North.

Performing with an orchestra gave Johnny the opportunity to reinterpret his catalogue in exciting ways and he surprised the crowd by opening with Armatopia – as energetic as ever, the live favourite saw its electronic elements fused with buoyant strings. Exhibiting a high level of energy, Johnny launched straight into Day In Day Out which soared more than ever with the melodic addition of the woodwind section. 

After addressing the crowd, expressing how much of an honour it was to be the first rock artist to play at the new cultural space in the heart of Manchester, he brought the pace down a notch with New Town Velocity from his debut solo album. Providing the perfect backdrop to Johnny’s already cinematic compositions, the orchestra enhanced the emotional impact and added layers of complexity to his music – and this was more evident than ever during the poignant New Town Velocity, that tells the tale of his youth.

How Soon Is Now, the first Smiths offering of the evening, came next - marking the initial moment when the orchestra caught your attention as they replicated Johnny’s iconic tremolo sound. Progressing throughout the track, they ultimately adopted a tribal sound as Johnny thoroughly immersed himself in the beat. Get The Message by Electronic followed, offering one of the most unique interpretations of the evening as the captivatingly contagious track paid homage to another vital area in Johnny’s career. Stunning the crowd into silence, the lesser played Rubicon was next, with its sweeping strings sat exquisitely alongside ominous instrumentation. 

The Smiths classic Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me followed, maintaining the brooding vibe as Johnny’s vocals have gone from strength to strength over the last ten years and this was particularly apparent on fan favourites, Hi Hello and Somewhere. Reworked in the style of the demo on Spirit Power, his recent solo career retrospective, the latter saw Johnny armed with an acoustic guitar as the orchestra gradually became part of the ensemble, culminating in a burst of joy.

Spiral Cities followed with its atmospheric and expansive sound enhanced by dynamic dance gestures that reflected not just how comfortable he is in his role as a frontman, but just how much fun he’s having. Skilled as ever when crafting a setlist, Johnny adeptly inserts contemplative tracks at just the right moment and Walk Into The Sea was as biblical as ever, with the harmonious sounds from the woodwork section introducing an additional dimension of allure to the Call The Comet track.

Johnny’s been working with the same band – Jack Mitchell, Iwan Gronow and James Doviak – since he launched his solo career in 2013 and they’re truly a force to be reckoned with. Following an impressive performance of eleven songs that also featured Nile Marr on guitar and harmonies, the band took a well-earned break, allowing Johnny to gracefully resume with his acoustic guitar, delivering a breath-taking rendition of Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want that skilfully highlighted the brass ensemble. The jaunty Easy Money provided a total contrast before the main set transported us back to the Hacienda with the Electronic classic Getting Away With It – a staple in Johnny’s live sets that never fails to elicit a broad smile from him.

Johnny and his powerhouse of a band returned to the stage with Panic and There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – two widely acclaimed tracks from his tenure with The Smiths. As he introduced the latter, the legendary musician expressed his gratitude to everybody onstage, before thanking those in the crowd for supporting him in such a historic moment. Delivering a sonic landscape that is both melancholic and uplifting, There Is a Light That Never Goes Out provided the perfect closing track to the show – with its perfection heightened by a photo of the late great Andy Rourke appearing on the screen at the end, which Johnny heart-warmingly saluted.

Factory International couldn’t have asked for a better inaugural live music performance at Aviva Studios and it was truly magical to hear tracks from all areas of Johnny’s career reworked with an orchestra. Never a one trick pony, Johnny has embraced a variety of musical endeavours and his collaboration with an orchestra only exemplifies his eagerness for and talent of pushing boundaries and exploring different musical avenues. If his 2023 is anything to go by, 2024 is going to be another huge year for Johnny – and we certainly look forward to being a part of it.

Johnny Marr's official website can be found here.  He is also on Facebook and Twitter.


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