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Morrissey at Riot Fest review: pop’s problematic uncle wisely shuts up and plays the hits

September 16, Douglass Park, Chicago: the disgraced icon croons his way through an enviable setlist of Smiths classics, and thankfully avoids controversy

REVIEW OVERVIEW
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Morrissey performing in London in 2020. Credit: Getty
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The first day of Chicago’s Riot Fest – with Run the Jewels and Slipknot also topping the bill this weekend – kicks off tonight with Morrissey as a more than worthy headliner. Moz, coming off five shows in Las Vegas, was a last minute addition to the festival, which had to scramble after several bands that were slated to play cancelled because of the pandemic and other reasons, but plays like he’d planned the gig for some time.

Unlike the last time he played Riot Fest in 2016, when he was almost an hour late to start and didn’t play any songs from his time with The Smiths, Moz comes out on time and immediately launches into one of the band’s biggest crowd pleasers: ‘How Soon is Now’.

Decked out in a black suit with brown shoes and a New York Dolls t-shirt, Moz may not be sporting the pompadour anymore, but he still has the voice and stage presence that has enthralled legions of fans for decades (even if Rick Astley and Blossoms have nicked his schtick with an upcoming series of Smiths covers shows in London).

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Boz Boorer, his longtime guitarist, isn’t present, but the backing band is tight. Morrissey walks out and immediately quotes Frank Sinatra’s beloved song ‘My Way’, grabbing the mic and intoning, “To say the things he truly feels, and not the words of one who kneels” — perhaps an acknowledgement of some of the egregious comments he’s made over the last few years.

After that, he wishes the crowd a “happy Independence Day” – a nod to Mexican Independence Day and his Latino contingent of fans, who are among his most fervent, despite some of his comments against immigration in the past. On this night, the Latinos in the crowd, some waving Mexican flags bearing the image of Morrissey, don’t seem to hold a grudge, nor does the Riot Fest crowd, who, because he isn’t playing at the same time as anyone else, are entirely focused on him.

Thursday was billed as a Riot Fest ‘preview’, with only six acts performing, one after another, so there are no conflicts for fans to contend with. There are perhaps some fans present waiting to see if Morrissey will show, or if he’ll leave early if annoyed with something – something he’s known to do – along with some younger fans, who may be keen to see what the Moz phenomenon was all about.

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As common with festivals that Morrissey plays, meat is not for sale at most food stands – although there is one stand selling Turkey legs that didn’t receive the memo until about an hour before his set – and one fan, wearing a shirt that reads “Shut up Morrissey,” holds a half-eaten Turkey leg and smiles as a big F.U. to the crooner.

Tonight, though, Moz doesn’t provide any fodder for naysayers, sticking to business with a 17-song set that includes some beloved Smiths songs (How Soon Is Now, Half A Person, Shoplifters of the World), which he’s recently been playing, and two covers: ‘Lady Willpower’ from Gary Puckett & The Union Gap and ‘Back On The Chain Gang’ from The Pretenders.

The only moment that provides a bit of drama is actually more humorous than dramatic, with Morrissey telling the crowd between songs, “Yesterday I took a flight on United Airlines – I don’t know how, but I survived,” perhaps a reference to recent headlines around the company’s bizarre methods of restraining unruly passengers.

Earlier in the day, art-rocker Kristeen Young, a former opener for Morrissey, kicked off the festival with a short set and afterwards told NME that after she’d fallen out with Morrissey, they are now talking again. Perhaps some of that patching up will continue with others and allow Moz to re-establish relations with one of the several record labels that have given him the cold shoulder because of his controversial statements. That remains to be seen, but he did get love from punk icon Patti Smith, who played a couple hours before Morrissey at the festival and gave him a hat tip, before launching into her song ‘Redondo Beach’ – a song she said even though it is her song she considers Morrissey’s because he covers it well.

A punter expressing himself at the show. Credit: Bob Chiarito
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If this Riot fest set proves anything, it’s  that Morrissey can still sing and when he sticks to business instead of giving his opinion on Brexit, immigration, or the Chinese – all topics that have caused outrage – he is still among the best performers around. That’s not to say he doesn’t have the right to voice his opinion, but he cannot act surprised when even his staunchest fans are appalled by it.

What is unanimous among his fans is how much his songs – especially those made with Johnny Marr during his time in The Smiths – mean to so many. And tonight he showed that he can still perform them as well as ever.

Morrissey played

How Soon Is Now?’

‘Irish Blood, English Heart’

‘Alma Matters’

‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’

‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’

‘I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’

‘Never Had No One Ever’

‘First of the Gang to Die’

‘Ouija Board, Ouija Board’

‘Lady Willpower’

‘Knockabout World’

‘You Have Killed Me’

‘Back on the Chain Gang’

‘Satan Rejected My Soul’

‘Half a Person’

‘Jack the Ripper’

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