Monday, May 04, 2009

Morrissey vs Ultravox - Belfast Waterfront Hall

Morrissey has always enjoyed an iconic position in popular music, buoyed by an army of loyal fans, some of whom were observed passing letters and gifts to their idol as he showcased his new album, Years of Refusal at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on Saturday night.

At one point, a particularly ardent fan seized the microphone and gushed about how thankful he was that his idol had come to see us all and save us with his songs. Morrissey nodded smugly, shook another hand and received another letter.

Strutting and flailing beneath a blown-up image of a bare-chested sailor, chomping on a cigar and flexing his muscles, Morrissey sang his way through a selection of his back catalogue, interspersed with the occasional tune from his days in The Smiths.

Nothing beyond recent single, I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris, stood out from the new album. Songs from Morrissey’s previous (better) album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, were wholly absent, while tracks from You Are The Quarry dominated the rest of the set. The highlights of the evening were an energetic rendition of The Loop and the mournful, Seasick, Yet Still Docked.

Although Morrissey and his band delivered his solo material with aplomb, older tunes seemed to drag, without the mellifluous guitar of Johnny Marr. This Charming Man, Girlfriend in a Coma, Ask and Some Girls are Bigger Than Others were robbed of their delicacy and instead became translated as plodding pub anthems.

There’s probably a section of the audience that expects this old material, although I feel Morrissey’s performance would be improved without it. Such songs might be better realised either stripped down as acoustic versions or transformed by modern production techniques; but these days, Morrissey seems too rooted to the traditional garage-band format to attempt anything that might develop his talents in a more interesting direction.

Things were altogether different the following evening, when Ultravox took to the same stage.

Never having been a big fan of Ultravox, I only decided to attend the gig when I found out they were playing Visions in Blue. It was the only Ultravox seven-inch single I possessed as a youth, mainly due to the robotic, electronic section that formed its second half. Besides, Ultravox were one of the panoply of bands that lit up a childhood spent dazzled by practically anyone on Top of the Pops in the early 1980s.

My earliest memory of Ultravox is of them performing their best-known track, Vienna on Top of the Pops in early 1981, with singer, Midge Ure resplendent in leather fetish hat, white vest and pencil moustache.

For this reunion performance, Ure was bald and barely recognisable behind dark glasses. Vienna, though, sounded just the same with its stabbing white-noise, spooky synth washes and Billy Currie, melancholy on the violin.

Accompanied by stark blue lighting, cold spotlights and a pulsing backdrop, the entire effect was akin to an old episode of Blake’s 7. The dystopian-future mood was invoked by the proto-techno of Mr X, The Thin Wall and Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind).

Alas, the science-fiction air of doom and alienation wasn’t to last and the rousing guitar-driven hits, Hymn, The Voice and Dancing With Tears in my Eyes had the audience on its feet, clapping and hooting.

Unlike Morrissey, Midge Ure did not receive letters or gifts from his followers, and when one overjoyed fan rushed to the front of the stage to dance, two tuxedo-wearing bouncers emerged from either side of the arena and politely guided him back to his seat. I had the distinct feeling that the gushing Morrissey fan from the night before, along with his myriad companions, would greatly disapprove of the entire experience.