Peabody Opera House; St. Louis

I‘m not going to start this review by proclaiming my love for Morrissey and The Smiths — caring about their music is something that can more or less be assumed of any 31-year-old music critic. If the music of Morrissey and The Smiths means a lot to you, then you have a pretty good idea of where I’m coming from.

Recently, I went to see Morrissey at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis. I’ve heard horror stories for years about Morrissey concerts — the cancelling, the despondency, the theatrics, the politics — but I’ve fantasized about seeing him for years, and when I heard he was coming to town, I made sure to seize the opportunity. I wish I hadn’t — it was probably the worst concert I’ve ever attended.

The concert began at 8:30 PM with a series of punk, new wave, and Civil Rights-era music videos and speeches. Watching The Four Tops and The Ramones, I initially thought it was a neat idea to forgo an opening act in favor of a few videos that could grip and unite the audience in a unique way. Yet, as that project moved past the 30-minute marker, it began to lose its novelty (the t.A.T.u. cover of “How Soon Is Now” didn’t help), and I started to feel like I could be doing the same thing at home — never a good sign at a show. Portentous hints of bad mixing started seeping in, with the mids and highs being almost unbearably shrill during some videos. Naturally, I had forgotten to bring my earplugs, which I don’t always use, but like to have just in case; two hours later, with a torn-up napkin stuffed in my ears, I would vow to carry them with me every day for the rest of my life.

Eventually, he came. His stage set-up wasn’t bad, a bare-bones, industrial club site with five supporting musicians and minimal props. But as the lights went down and the musicians powered up, it became apparent to me that something very bad was happening. Immediately, blinding lights and searing, aggressive strobes showered every inch of the venue with scalding waves of light. It became literally painful to look at the stage, as one of the permanently shining lights was aimed directly into my retinas, making me grateful for once to have a tall person seated in front of me. He was and remains an unknowing shield, a silent hero. Indeed, there is a light that never goes out — it’s part of Morrissey’s irresponsibly-handled scenography. You may witness its majesty in the photo above.

As for the sound, it was absolutely deafening. Only seconds into his set, it became clear that this show was mixed for a Super Bowl halftime performance, not an opera house. The mids and highs became even more overpowering, blocking out the richness of Morrissey’s actual voice, which is literally the single reason that people go see a Morrissey concert. And rightly so — his voice is one of the most incredible instruments in the history of pop music. What a shame that it was so muddled, mixed directly into the center of a swampy explosion of electronics and guitars. I know Morrissey is not The Smiths and that no guitarist alive is Johnny Marr, but I nevertheless did find myself longing for the clarity, ingenuity, and joyous balance of their music.

My life is peppered with abrasive rock, noise, and metal concerts, but Morrissey’s is probably the most aggressively loud show I’ve ever seen… and in the past month I’ve seen Swans and Bell Witch. I know it wasn’t the venue’s fault, because I’d previously seen Wilco and Sufjan Stevens there, and both shows were produced with the care and precision those artists deserve. That said, it certainly is the venue’s fault that its cheapest beer is a $9 bottle of Miller Lite, and it’s also its fault that the promise of the fourth-floor bar’s “Cash Only” sign was only fulfilled after a 20 minute search that involved no less than three employees having no idea where the machine was.

Sure, my review is laced with truths that probably contributed to my experience: I’m getting old, my seats weren’t great, I forgot my earplugs, I didn’t bring cash. Somehow, I can’t imagine my experience having been any better if those things had gone down differently. Those four conditions have been true for numerous other concerts I’ve seen in the past few years, and many were still quite enjoyable. And for the record, I’m not the only Smiths-loving professional in town that has had a bad time seeing him.

The setlist was OK. I want to say that it was cool to see him perform “How Soon Is Now,” but it wasn’t. The show was heavy on new songs, which is fine, but a number of them were prefaced by tepid, pseudo-political ramblings (“Free speech is dead!” and “I’m ashamed to be British!”). My friend and I chose to leave during “Meat Is Murder,” which was lackluster, and I later found out that we missed a (likely bemired) reading of “Shoplifters of the World Unite.” I’ve been to hundreds of concerts, but I’ve never left one because it was physically untenable for me to be there (I am a pretty tough guy when it comes to noise, light, and other caustic external conditions). It became very clear to me that night that a Morrissey concert seems to primarily exist for Morrissey, for him to bathe in adoration from fans, for him to reproduce his personality, for him to continue reliving the good old days.

Throughout the night, I was painfully aware that I was simply there to enjoy the price of the ticket, to “see Morrissey,” and to “enjoy myself;” the flip side of this, of course, was seeing Morrissey enjoying a Morrissey concert. It’s true that both sides exist in all concerts, but the greatest performers always seem to obfuscate this dark essence, the cold, hard reality that the whole experience is just a function of the culture industry and its laws. Sure, there were people in the front row that got a handshake or a hug, and there were probably people on the ground floor that had a completely different audio-visual experience; sadly, it’s not my job to review the show from their point of view. If I hadn’t been in that seat, somebody else would have been.

When more attention seems to be given to PETA kiosks, half-baked political one-liners, and overwhelming light shows than the comfort of the audience, it will likely always result in something less than grand for some who attend. When all was said and done that night, there was something deeply poetic about my friend’s invocation of the lyric “Heaven knows I’m miserable now” as we headed to the stairwell mid-concert to leave, the sacred describing the profane.

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