A surprising scarcity of hits defined Morrissey’s lopsided set list at the Arsht Center last night, which pooled most of the legendary singer-songwriter’s danciest tunes into the first 30 minutes and spent the remaining hour plumbing some pretty dark recesses. When I walked out of the auditorium, I didn’t feel the accompanying surge of adrenaline and excitement that lingers for a couple of days after most great concerts; I mostly felt shame and depression, which, for any non-vegans in the audience, is probably the intended reaction. More on that a little later.
Morrissey was pretty chatty last night, at least for him. He didn’t mention directly that his previous two South Florida shows had been canceled, but he acknowledged his absence by saying, “It took us a while to save up the bus fare” to get to Miami—“a little saving here, a little saving there.” Later, he shared his thoughts on pharmaceutical advertisements in a comic riff that could have just as easily been spoken by Bill Maher.
He played 19 songs total, more than in other cities on this tour, but the experience still felt much too short—such is the pleasant problem of having far too many masterful songs in an archive than could possibly be played over a given show. He opened unexpectedly with a scorching “How Soon is Now?,” probably the Smiths’ most well-known single. Its booming, climactic percussion rippled across the concert hall, and the audience tossed him more than one bouquet of flowers during its duration.
Soon after, we got the power-pop bliss of “Certain People I Know,” a brilliant ditty that hasn’t turned up in Moz set lists since the early ‘90s, followed by the Smiths’ “Hand in Glove” and Morrissey’s 2009 single “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris”—in all, 10 to 12 minutes of heaven that constituted the highlight of the evening.
The rest of the set consisted largely of Morrissey miscellany: a Franki Valli cover, the recent B-side “Gangland” (a song about police brutality that could have easily been an A-side), deep cuts from his ‘00s albums “Ringleader of the Tormenters” and “You Are the Quarry.” We were also treated to four tracks from his forthcoming LP “World Peace is None of Your Business.” These tunes were not what fans showed up to hear, but I love the lyrical direction Morrissey has taken with them: It seems his focus has shifted away from his internal struggles for love and acceptance and has spread outward, touching on geopolitics and a planet in desperate flux. The title track to “World Peace,” which was the only new song I’d heard prior to the show, gave me chills.
Then came, I suppose, the “love it or leave it” portion of the concert, a performance of “Meat is Murder” accompanied by unrelenting video projection of slaughterhouse and factory-farm brutality. The song, which has long been Moz’s vegan manifesto, is hard enough to take on its own; the most polarizing number in the Smiths’ oeuvre, it sounds like a death rattle in a torture chamber. To hear this angry indictment in a live setting, with the stage lights bathing the players in blood-red and videos showing sadistic humans gleefully mutilating innocent animals pretty much destroyed the energy in the room. When it was over, many in the audience didn’t know whether to applaud or cry.
And it prompts the question: What is Morrissey’s purpose up there? Isn’t it to entertain us with his brilliant art for an hour and a half and send us home pleased? “I Just Want to See the Boy Happy,” right? Not so much. I’ve long supported artists advocating their politics during concerts, even if it means potentially alienating of some of their fans, but this was agitprop to an extreme. I doubt the hardcore vegan purists in the audience enjoyed that performance of “Meat is Murder,” and the carnivores probably felt scolded and lectured. The fact that the propaganda was effective—seeing those videos may prevent me from eating meat again—is actually beside the point. There's a time and place for "A Clockwork Orange"-style conditioning, and this tour wasn’t it.
Three great songs would follow, including, FINALLY, a genuine crowd-pleaser in “First of the Gang to Die.” But “Meat is Murder” killed the night. Way to go.