I haven’t reviewed any live albums since I began reviewing albums in 2013, so I figured Adrenalin Baby: Johnny Marr Live is as good a place as any to start. And it’s not because this is an album on everyone’s radar — Johnny Marr isn’t much of a known quantity outside of Smiths fans and the Rockcrit establishment — but because the vast majority of the tracks on Adrenalin Baby: Johnny Marr Live are from Marr’s two solo albums, 2013’s The Messenger and 2014‘s Playland, two albums I have already reviewed (favorably) on this site. So while live albums are almost always reserved strictly for the dedicated (exceptions are pretty rare when you get right down to it), there is at least some context I can bring to the table in this particular case, since Adrenalin Baby: Johnny Marr Live is of a piece with both The Messenger and Playland.
Past classics from decades past pop up here and there, of course: three songs by the Smiths — “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” and “How Soon Is Now?” — appear in the album’s back half, as does a cover of the Crickets’ “I Fought the Law” (performed in the style of the Clash’s version from their 1979 EP The Cost of Living, of course). All of the album’s tracks were recorded at the Manchester Apollo, Glasgow Academy and Brixton Academy on Marr’s Playland tour in 2014, but the performances from these separate shows are seamlessly edited together, making it all seem like one concert. It never feels inauthentic. These are mostly very good to great songs — a couple cuts from Playland lag behind the rest in quality though — presented in a brand new context.
For example, Marr (obviously) sings everything here, including the Smiths songs. Since he wasn’t the vocalist in the Smiths — that was rather enigmatic Morrissey — the takes seem fresh and alive. And Marr really is a damn good guitarist — any worries that his labyrinthine parts wouldn’t translate to the stage are quickly put to rest here. An experienced performer, he knows how to put on a show. It also helps that his pair of solo albums are good — The Messenger very good; Playland just good — so the material is solid. The Messenger‘s “New Town Velocity” and “Generate! Generate!” were two of my favorite songs of 2013, and Marr does them justice here. (It would have been nice if “Say Demesne” were performed/included as well, but I guess you can’t have everything.)
Playland had three songs I included on my Top Tracks of 2014 list, and one of them (“Candidate”) is here in fine form. (The other two are “This Tension” and “Speak Out Reach Out,” if you are interested in exploring those.) As nice as it is to hear Marr’s solo oeuvre in a live setting, it’s really the Smiths songs — particularly the all-time classic “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and the crowd singalong toward the end of it — that elevate Adrenalin Baby: Johnny Marr Live to must-listen status. (And it never gets old to hear Johnny play “How Soon Is Now?,” one of the guitarist’s true masterpieces that retains its painterly quality in concert.) The album’s not a game-changer, but it is a source of considerable pleasure, which is more than enough.