Morrissey's spotty track record in Pittsburgh includes at least one cancellation at a venue -- the ol' amphitheater at Station Square -- that was deemed unworthy of his presence.
On Monday night the British rock legend got to bask in the elegance of the grandest stage in town, the Pittsburgh Symphony's home of Heinz Hall. For about an hour and a half, the man who came to be called The Pope of Mope staged his own tragicomedy of heartache and dread.
Morrissey, who played just a block away with his band The Smiths 27 years ago, is one of the rare survivors of that golden age of post-punk, having crafted a timeless sound into which he could age gracefully.
Morrissey rolled against that tide as a crooner from the Bowie school, and at 53, his voice has gotten only more seasoned, as the body of work has taken on more weight. (Don't read that as a fat joke, as he is still quite fit.) His personal life has never been an open book, but we can say for sure that he doesn't live in the suburbs and drive a minivan, so everything he sings still has a ring of truth, even if his tongue is sometimes poking cheek.
Shoplifters of the World Unite
You Have Killed Me
Every Day Is Like Sunday
Action is My Middle Name
I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris
Ouija Board, Ouija Board
You're the One for Me, Fatty
November Spawned a Monster
To Give (The Reason I Live)
I Know It's Over
Let Me Kiss You
Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
Meat Is Murder
How Soon Is Now?
In a peach-colored shirt (unbuttoned way down as always) and jeans, he hit the stage in anthemic style with the mercurial Smiths classic "Shoplifters of the World Unite." He brought a five-piece band, led by longtime guitar sidekick Boz Boorer, designed to shake the chandeliers, and it probably did on some of the clashing rockers, like the uncharacteristically metallic "Maladjusted." They played the classic "Still Ill," one of the set's highlights, with a scraping guitar more akin to Gang of Four than The Smiths.
On this trip, Morrissey's banter was a bit more clipped and terse (and not at all tuned into the MLK Day/Obama inauguration spirit of the day). "Are you well?" he asked of several fans. "Everybody's well. I'm well, and that's that." When a fan rushed the stage early on for a hug and was hauled away, he pointed at him and said, "silly ... see."
Introducing the set's only new, unreleased song, he declared, "All of my life I was told to stick within my own limitations -- and I didn't. And 'Action Is My Middle Name'."
The Moz stuck with his solo years through the meat of the set, offering the melancholy hit "Everyday Is Like Sunday" and the dramatic "November Spawned a Monster" (with an intro that scoffed at Gun Appreciation Day), while benching "Suedehead," "Last of the International Playboys" and few other favorites for the (perhaps) lesser loved "Ouija Board, Ouija Board," "Speedway" and "Alma Matters."
Morrissey's buttery baritone was best highlighted by the late-set ballads, starting with a noise-drenched cover of Frankie Valli's "To Give (The Reason I Live)." The Smiths' over-the-top lament "I Know It's Over," with its chorus of "Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head," was a tour de force, as was the slow, sad, beautiful reading of "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want." In between was the equally blue "Let Me Kiss You," during which he ripped off his shirt and threw it to the crowd as he sang, "My heart is open."
The sorrowful tone turned to anger with the set-closing "Meat Is Murder." Morrissey laid on the "murder" part thick with graphic black-and-white footage of animal cruelty against gothic red lights, ending with the singer bowed on the floor as the drummer pounded out dramatic gong hits. It felt almost awkward to cheer for an encore after that statement, but Morrissey did return with the very thing his fans wanted: a show-stopping version of "How Soon Is Now?" that bombarded the senses with flashing light and wall-shaking volume.
Morrissey spent part of the song working the crowd with handslaps and a nice hug for one petite woman who gently tapped him on the back once she made it to the stage. Although his music as a young man may have led us to believe that he'd be too thoroughly depressed by now to find any joy in this, it's nice to see that's clearly not the case. Let's hope for future trips with new albums and more vintage Smiths.
Scott Mervis: email@example.com, 412-263-2576 and on Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.