Morrissey's rare visit worth the trip


November 22, 2006


From the promoters to the legions of faithful, gladiola-bearing fans, no one was quite sure why Morrissey was playing his only U.S. show this fall at a sold-out Aragon Ballroom on Tuesday night.

Playing up his reputation as an often reclusive and set-upon cult hero -- "So, you see, rumors of my death have been quite exaggerated," he said at the start of the show -- 47-year-old Steven Patrick Morrissey did a handful of dates in Texas and Oklahoma last March when he spoke at the South by Southwest Music Festival. But there has been no proper American tour in support of his eighth solo album, "Ringleader of the Tormentors" -- just this surprising visit to Chicago.

One rumor held that the brief defection of his bass player derailed other U.S. gigs until next spring. Another had it that he simply had a layover at O'Hare while en route from several arena shows in Mexico last week to some upcoming gigs in Greece. Or maybe it was just the unique charm of the Aragon that drew him.

"It's been many, many years since I first played this fabulous venue," the singer said midway through a 90-minute set that was typically emotional in its musical content and wry and sardonic in its stage patter. "It's my pleasure to say they finally have some decent toilet paper, so things are definitely looking up!"

Whatever brought him here, Morrissey was received with the usual rapturous devotion by his Windy City acolytes as he took to a Spartan stage adorned only with a backdrop bearing a giant image of feminist intellectual Gertrude Stein. And as he fronted his impressively tight, massive-sounding and nattily dressed six-piece band, he never sounded in better voice.

Released last April, "Ringleader of the Tormentors" was a disappointingly lackluster effort, and the new songs didn't gain anything in concert. Indeed, the formerly celibate Moz's uncharacteristically randy but joyless "Dear God Please Help Me" ("I've got explosive kegs between my legs") and the ultra-mopey self-parody "Life Is A Pigsty" were even more plodding and sullen onstage than on album.

Thankfully, those low points were far outnumbered by the evening's highs, among them the jaunty opener "Panic"; a wrenching "Disappointed"; a lovely version of the "Viva Hate" nugget "I've Changed My Plea to Guilty"; a splendidly swirling and psychedelic "I Will See You in Far-off Places" and a rollicking romp through "Irish Blood, English Heart."

The American press isn't smart enough to write about him, the ever-misunderstood artiste complained at one point. But that's not fair: We were just waiting for you to finally pay us a visit, Moz.

Specially chosen by the headliner to open all of his recent overseas shows, Kristeen Young is a St. Louis singer, songwriter, keyboardist and vocalist now based in New York. With powerful accompaniment from drummer Baby Jeff White, her personality filled the cavernous and unforgiving space of the Aragon, and the duo came on like an unrelenting version of the Gang of Four fronted by Kate Bush, with a hint of Siouxsie and the Banshees.