Morrissey contradictory as ever at House of Blues


July 19, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Like escargot or caviar, Morrissey's music has always been an acquired taste.

Devotees consider themselves all the more sophisticated for appreciating it, and they laud it as the ultimate gourmet treat. Much of the rest of the rock world either enjoys it in small doses or wonders how anyone could stomach it.

At age 45 and 20 years into his career, the flamboyant British singer still chafes at this fact. While performing at the House of Blues on Saturday, he made several cracks about his inability to score a hit single in America and scoffed at this country's lukewarm reception of "You Are the Quarry," his first album in seven years.





But to the hardcore fans who chanted his name before the concert, sang along with every one of the 17 songs and continually reached out to brush the fingertips or touch the feet of their idol, nothing could have been sweeter.

With a set list that spanned his career -- both as a solo artist and as the frontman for '80s guitar heroes the Smiths -- the show was designed to hail the return of a conquering hero and make the case that Morrissey is as relevant now as he's ever been.

"The passing of time / And all of its sickening crimes / Is making me sad again," he sang five songs into the evening, performing the Smiths' "Rubber Ring."

Later, he derided the politics of President Bush -- "He's brought so much shame to America, more than any other president in the history of this country," he said -- told the crowd how to vote, hailed "Fahrenheit 9/11" and seemed shocked when some people booed the mention of Michael Moore's film.

It was indeed an incongruous reaction: From his extreme vegetarianism to his leftist worldview to his sexual politics, Morrissey's opinions have always been an inescapable part of the meal, and you either digest them or order a hamburger instead.

But the passing of time has a way of reducing what were once radical sentiments into mere nostalgia, and the star himself recognized that in the rest of the lyrics to "Rubber Ring": "Don't forget the songs that made you cry / And the songs that saved your life / Yes, you're older now / And you're a clever swine / But they were the only ones who ever stood by you."

This, then, was a performance for the faithful -- the cleverest swine. And while Moz was in top form vocally and theatrically, posing and preening as enthusiastically as ever and soaking through a natty dinner jacket and two stylish button-down shirts, it couldn't help but seem anticlimactic.

Morrissey was to have headlined one of the two nights of this year's Lollapalooza festival. Rumors continue to swirl through the concert industry that the notorious prima donna played a major role in scuttling that tour, pulling out because he was dismayed by lackluster ticket sales.

Within hours of the official word of Lollapalooza's cancellation, Morrissey announced this show at Chicago's House of Blues as part of an ambitious promotion for a major credit-card company. In the process of pulling out of what was once America's premier alternative-rock festival and downscaling to perform at an elite corporate event, he shut out thousands of listeners, casual fans and true believers alike.

That isn't a very good way to prove your relevance to rock circa 2004, and it's a rather shaky platform from which to criticize America's big-money imperialist agenda. But Morrissey has always been fraught with contradictions, and his fans didn't seem unduly bothered. Backed by an impressive six-piece band driven by longtime guitarist Boz Boorer, the singer shined on favorites such as the Smiths' "The Headmaster Ritual," "Every Day Is Like Sunday" from "Bona Drag" and the unreleased curiosity "Don't Make Fun of Daddy's Voice." New tunes such as "The World Is Full of Crashing Bores," "I Have Forgiven Jesus" and the single-song encore "Irish Blood, English Heart" also showed more spark in live performance than on album.

The only thing missing was the once-traditional toss of a tambourine or two to the loyalists. But then I didn't see any fans handing him gladioli, either.

Touring in support of their recent album "Hot Fuss," and opening the show with a compelling set of glam-punk heavy on the influence of David Bowie and the night's headliner, was the Las Vegas quartet the Killers. The group lived up to its album title with a set so incendiary that one of its amplifiers literally caught fire midway through the show.