On the path to the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday night, there were beautiful altars decorated for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), including one for David Bowie and one for Prince, who both passed away this year. Fortunately, fellow iconic artist and Bowl concert headliner Morrissey — known to fans as Moz — is still alive and seemingly well.
Before Morrissey came on, there were opening sets by Rubén Albarrán and the Mexican Institute of Sound, whose song "Yo Digo Baila" ("I Say Dance") featured a Donald Trump piñata that didn't survive the song.
Next up was a series of cool videos that arguably went on a bit too long, including songs by Morrissey's early influences the Ramones ("Loudmouth"), who he later covered, Lou Reed ("Make Up," with risqué footage from Andy Warhol's film Flesh), Sex Pistols ("God Save the Queen") and New York Dolls ("Looking for a Kiss").
Morrissey finally emerged to declare, "And to you I say, 'Happy Death Day,'" and his band in cool Catrin skull makeup launched into The Smiths' classic "How Soon Is Now?" This was an amazing moment, and the crowd went absolutely mad.
Although this was only one of two Smiths songs on the program, the groundbreaking band, which broke up in 1987, hung over the concert much like it has hung over Morrissey's solo career. (Consider Morrissey's 1991 New Musical Express interview in which he lamented, "My past is almost denying me a future.") Sentiments are mixed on whether a reunion of Morrissey with Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who opened for New Order at the Bowl three years ago, would be a good idea. But this seems to be a moot point, so for better or worse we'll take Morrissey in solo mode.
At the Bowl, Morrissey drew from his whole solo career, including early favorites "Suedehead" and "Everyday Is Like Sunday" from his album Viva Hate, new tracks such as "Kiss Me A Lot" and more obscure songs from his catalog such as "Jack the Ripper" and "Don't Make Fun of Daddy's Voice."
His rather grim worldview came through on lines including, "This is my life to wreck my own way" from "Alma Matters," "Well, she has now gone from this miserable planet" from "Ouija Board, Ouija Board" and "When you try to break my spirit, it won't work because there's no spirit left to break anymore" from "Speedway." Good times!
Never one to shy away from controversial topics, disturbing footage of police brutality was shown during "Gangland," which Morrissey introduced by saying (in reference to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests), "We would like to dedicate our set tonight to the people of North Dakota. The world is watching."
Later, before "The Bullfighter Dies," which imagines a different bullfighting outcome from the typical one, he said, "As we all know, in Spain murder and torture are known as tradition." On the other hand, his vegan evangelism was limited to a restricted menu of rather tasty vegetarian/vegan choices at the Bowl concessions — no "Meat Is Murder" video this time.
Of course, our upcoming election came up. Morrissey's take: "I do feel very sorry for you, and very sorry for me, and very sorry for the world on Tuesday/Wednesday, because no result can be a good result. And I have shocking news for you — these are the good old days."
Recounting all this, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that Morrissey can be rather funny. For example, when eager fans tried desperately to make it onstage to touch their idol during "Suedehead," he supplemented, "Why do you come here?" and "Why do you hang around?" with "Why do you crowdsurf?" When a particularly spirited attempt failed, he sang, "It was a nice try, nice try, nice try."
As a special touch for the Spanish-speaking fans, and there were many thanks to the evening's Día de los Muertos theme, keyboard player Gustavo Manzur finished off a couple of songs in Spanish, including "Speedway" ("Siempre me mantendré fiel a ti" — "I'll always stay true to you") and "World Peace Is None of Your Business."
For the encore, it was back to The Smiths for "What She Said," a welcome reminder of Morrissey's earlier efforts. The Smiths may be dead, but we continue to remember them with great fondness — while also appreciating Moz's often stellar post-Smiths career.
How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths song)
Jack the Ripper
Judy Is a Punk (Ramones cover)
You're the One for Me, Fatty
Ouija Board, Ouija Board
Kiss Me A Lot
Don't Make Fun of Daddy's Voice
I Will See You in Far-Off Places
The Bullfighter Dies
World Peace Is None of Your Business
I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris
One of Our Own
The World Is Full of Crashing Bores
Everyday Is Like Sunday
First of the Gang to Die
What She Said (The Smiths song)
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.