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Morrissey Has Mastered the Art of Being Morrissey

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Morrissey With Kristeen Young Majestic Theatre, Dallas Thursday, May 22, 2014

You have to hand it to Morrissey: He's one aging rock star who will not go softly into that good night. No, his band didn't wear the "Meat Is Murder" T-shirts that were mooted to be the plan. (The shirts were bright red and said "SLAG" in big, bold letters instead.) But after three decades of playing the role of Morrissey, he remains unapologetically himself, with all the cantankerousness, cynicism, and foppish affectations that go along with it. Few people own themselves as well as Moz does.

Throughout his 80-minute set at the Majestic Theatre last night, Morrissey was really all you needed to know. There were his five band members there to back him up, but they may as well have been part of the scenery. Even the images and videos projected at the rear of stage played a bigger role in the proceedings, in spite of the several lengthy codas that filled out the set.

No, Morrissey has his act down perfectly, and acting is the key: being Morrissey is a dramatic (and often melodramatic) role. His peppered gray hair slightly messed and black collared shirt opened to expose his chest, the Brit made one flamboyant gesture after another. At one moment, he would clutch the mike stand and strike an imploring pose, at the next throw the stand down behind him and walk to the edge of stage to grasp the outreached hand of one of his fans. It was pure theater.

The role worked especially well early on in the set, when he could play his two best selves -- the churlish cynic and the hopeless romantic -- off one another. After all, the reason either one works is that they coexist. If he railed against the hypocrisy of the system on "Ganglord," then he turned it around to a more personal level with "Earth is the Loneliest Planet," where such hypocrisy is explained away by the sad fact that "humans are not really humane." All he could do about it was reach his arm out forlornly like Hamlet.

Amongst those early songs, the biggest highlights were perhaps predictable. In particular, the crowd jumped in to sing along on "Every Day is Like Sunday," which crucially also saw the band feel more like an intrinsic part of the music. The same went for "Hand in Glove," where the familiar acoustic jangle of the Smiths made the music feel larger than one man. Otherwise things may have sunk into morose tedium, which they nearly did in the middle of the set.

Yet Moz is able to rise above such things on his own, especially when the mood strikes him. Unlike, say, his old bandmate Johnny Marr, who remains a consummate musician but relies primarily on his professionalism, Morrissey is all charisma, and he drifts on his cult of personality. It's not that he phoned in any parts of his performance, but on songs like "Life is a Pigsty" and "Trouble Loves Me," he seemed a singular beast.

"Pigsty" started off with Morrissey at his nastiest, mocking sentimentality and empty morality. Then, midway through the song, he turned the idea on its ear, lamenting that he was "falling in love again." This was the romantic double-play at its best -- Moz the misanthrope who, in spite of his ridicule for people, also can't help but being vulnerably human himself -- and he juiced it up by turning his back to the audience and hunching over in front of the drum kit. Moments later, he'd broken out of his signature half-croon sing-speak and really belted out the words to "Trouble Loves Me." These two songs were undoubtedly the emotional centerpiece of the show.

And yet moments later he was at his most insufferable. That was thanks to "World Peace is None of Your Business," the title track off his upcoming record and a song bereft of the emotional underpinnings that make the Morrissey persona a likable, or at least tolerable, one. Here he was all glib commentary and preachy superiority without any of the complicitness that make those criticisms resonate.

But Morrissey managed to bring things back around in the end, and in the most visceral of fashions. He did so with, of all things, his "Meat is Murder" video montage, which portrayed the brutal treatment, abuse and killings of animals in the food industry. The footage was discomforting stuff, and if several folks made a hasty exit for the bar, the rest of the room stood in rapt silence. In fact, the music was but a recitation to accompany the video, almost a narration at times, and after a while Morrissey merely collapsed to the floor in a heap while the footage continued to run overhead.

His outspokenness over animal cruelty has that same familiar mix of provocation and tactlessness that courses through Morrissey's music. At root, however, is the same disdain for his fellow man: if humans are selfish hypocrites, then their treatment of animals is equally deplorable. Amidst all the overacting and the self-righteousness of the night (and the man in general), there was something disarmingly sincere about this particular gesture. What mattered most was that Moz was making a statement -- and what's more, at the age of 55, still pushing to make his audience uncomfortable.

Ah yes, 55 years old. Yesterday also happened to be Morrissey's birthday, and when he left stage before the encore, the audience broke into singing "Happy Birthday." When he returned, clad now in a white shirt, his heartfelt delivery of "Asleep" felt all the more poignant. Afterwards, as crowd members lining the edge of stage thrust gifts up to him, Morrissey the human broke through as well. "I love you! I love you! I love you!" he exclaimed rapidly. Beneath all those layers, you could tell he really meant it.

Critics' Bias: Last year I saw Johnny Marr perform. Both his and Morrissey's sets were thoroughly enjoyable, though for very different reasons. The Crowd: Shouting plenty along the way, but mostly good-natured and dancing along. Only one person rushed the stage. Critics Notebook: Opener Kristeen Young was a thrill to watch. Looking like Regine Chassange's punk older sister, she had a voice that sounded like Poly Styrene if she could actually sing, with an impressive range that could wail and howl with chilling effects. Musically she sounded like a collision of Cyndi Lauper and Bauhaus (which was a good thing). The buzz has been good from her opening spots for Moz and could be one to watch in the coming months.

Setlist: One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell Speedway Ganglord Earth is the Loneliest Planet Every Day is Like Sunday The Bullfighter Dies Hand in Glove The Youngest Was the Most Loved Life is a Pigsty Trouble Loves Me World Peace is None of Your Business Yes, I Am Blind Meat is Murder The National Front Disco

Encore: Asleep First of the Gang to Die

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