SAN FRANCISCO — Morrissey wasted no time Thursday night at The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The iconoclastic frontman took the stage and asked “How are things on the West Coast?” before immediately launching into The Smiths’ classic “Panic.” The crowd went wild, singing along as Morrissey, now gray-haired and looking dapper in white shirt and blue vest, paced the stage, occasionally shaking hands with fans.
The concert marked Morrissey’s first performance following an incident in Portland on Monday during which the singer had an audience member removed after he unfurled a sign denouncing the singer’s right-wing views on immigration. He subsequently canceled Tuesday;s Seattle show.
In San Francisco the 60-yeat-old showed no obvious ill-effects. For nearly two hours Morrissey turned in a spirited performance that culled material from the his solo albums, and several covers from this year’s California Son. Far from an aging rocker desperately trying to recapture the passion of his youthful performances, Steven Patrick Morrissey has actually improved. His voice has deepened and grown stronger with age.
Morrissey spent the first part of his set playing older solo songs, including “Alma Matters,” from 1997’s Maladjusted and “Suedehead,” from 1988’s Viva Hate. Some of the lyrics took on new meanings in light of Morrissey’s recent political rumblings, particularly lines from “Hairdresser on Fire:” “Oh, here is London/ Home of the brash, outrageous and free/ You are repressed/ But you’re remarkably dressed.”
The stage was decorated with several oversized, silver photo umbrellas that glowed and pulsed under the stage lights. Black and white images of Joey Ramone, James Baldwin, Kiss drummer Peter Criss and others were projected onto the wall behind the band.
The middle of the set largely featured songs from Morrissey’s latest, a covers album, including a spacey take on Jobriath’s 1973 glam-rock hit “Morning Starship,” which featured the singer’s longtime guitarists, Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias, unleashing thick and distorted power chords. None of The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr’s jangly guitar tones were to be found here. During covers of Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap’s “Lady Willpower,” Morrissey seemed nearly transformed into a lounge singer, belting out beloved songs from his early years. But it’s a role that suits him at this point in his life. Morrissey must absolutely kill it at karaoke bars.
One of the evening’s highlights was a cover of The Pretenders’ 1982 hit, “Back on the Chain Gang,” delivered with the perfect ratio of schmaltz and sass.
For the most part Morrissey seemed intent on keeping politics out of the performance, with the exception of an image of a yellow-vested Parisian protestor next to a burning car displayed during “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” from 2009’s Years of Refusal; and some graphic imagery of bullfights during “The Bullfighter Dies,” clearly selected to confront the audience with the sport’s violence.
While Morrissey selected only a few songs by The Smiths, these elicited the biggest reactions from the crowd, with many in the balcony rising to their feet to dance during these moments. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” from 1985’s Meat is Murder, seemed to contain even deeper reservoirs of ironic pathos as Morrissey now sounds older and even more bitter. At one point the crowd began to chant, “Morrissey! Morrissey!” to which the singer responded demurely, “It’s OK, you don’t have to, you really don’t have to.”
After a rousing version of “Jack the Ripper,” Morrissey’s 1993 album, Beethoven was Deaf, the band left the stage as smoke obscured the band’s equipment and sinister laughing boomed over the speakers.
Soon, the band returned for an encore, Morrissey now wearing a blue blazer. The band launched into crowd favorite “Everyday is Like Sunday.”
Perhaps the concert’s most dramatic moment occurred as the haunting tremolo sound from The Smiths’ biggest hit, “How Soon is Now?” filled the room. As the song reached its crescendo of loneliness and apathy, Morrissey ripped off his white T-shirt, revealing a pale but not entirely pudding-like torso. As Morrissey and the band left the stage, drummer Matt Walker battered a kettle drum and droning guitars squealed with feedback before the house lights finally came up.
The evening began with an opening set from New York’s Interpol, whose stark, slick and minimalist aesthetic provided a nice counterpoint to Morrissey’s hormonal sensitivity. The spartan stage was littered with reflective chrome spheres and backed by the band’s logo in huge red letters. The quintet, sleek silhouettes dressed in black, rarely moved from their spots. But an elaborate light show, with vertical shafts of light that pulsed in elaborate patterns around the band added a kinetic element to the performance.
Interpol a tight hourlong minute set of songs from throughout its 20 years. “If You Really Love Nothing,” from 2018’s Marauder; and “Heinrich Maneuver,” from 2007’s Our Love to Admire, benefited from the tension created between the angular and mechanistic music and vocalist Paul Banks’s emotive singing. It recalled the heart-on-your-sleeve delivery of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.
During the set, the band explored a number of different musical dynamics, from the more uptempo and almost punk-like “The Rover” to the slower, heavier and more Pixies-like tunes. Crowd favorites included “Evil” and “Narc,” from 2004’s Antics. The latter’s building intensity drove fans into a frenzy. Leaving the stage, Banks gave the audience a simple instruction: “Enjoy Morrissey.”