Call me morbid, call me pale—no really, it’s OK—I went to a Morrissey concert on Saturday where those descriptors were compliments—and a set of lyrics. As a former gloomy goth chick, I know Moz and maudlin go together like black lipstick and clove cigarettes. So it was initially confusing to learn Morrissey was sharing tour dates with Welsh warbler Tom Jones as his opening act. Jones is a heavyweight belter, a gleeful showman, who (thank God) was capable of making Saturday’s performance at the vast Los Angeles Sports Arena feel as swingin’ as the Flamingo circa 1969.
At 73, Jones isn’t prickly about playing hits from decades ago, making sure “Delilah” reached the cheap seats like a fly ball sailing across Dodger Stadium. Jones had a multi-piece live backing band with an accordion player and percussion section that helped recast his hoariest chestnut, “It’s Not Unusual,” with a Latin-style tempo. His hips swaying breezily beneath a conservative gray suit, Jones seems to be cultivating more of an eminence grise Tony Bennett vibe than the groovy growling sex bomb of yore. Perhaps he’s just responding to a demographic shift: Crowds don’t seem to toss panties like they used to. As a fellow audience member wondered: “It’s because women don’t wear underwear anymore, am I right?” Maybe. Or maybe that’s just L.A.
Jones fans may change but Morrissey fans? They stay the same. This is particularly true for his most celebrated of L.A. admirers, the Eastside Latino goth-a-billy crowd once profiled by Chuck Klosterman, among others, who made up a significant chunk of the evening’s attendees. Whether twentysomething or fortysomething, the enduring look for men is a slick pompadour with a pair of creepers and dark denim; for the women it’s fat-rolled curls with a flower attached to the side and a 1950s cocktail dress that highlights their tattooed sleeves.
When Morrissey took the stage, clad in a gray jacket and a V-neck t-shirt that was Grand Canyon-deep, what struck me was how he and Jones share a sense of timelessness. They age, but they don’t seem to get old—at least not sad-old or desperate-old like Elvis, George Michael or David Lee Roth. (They also seem to share a fabulous tailor, which may be the real trick to aging gracefully.)
Perhaps it’s because they’ve both remained consistent while churning out new material and exploring new sounds. Morrissey’s detractors, of which there were once legions, used to give fans a kind of frat-boyish, critical noogie by dubbing him a self-indulgent whiner—and in some ways that’s true. His younger vocal style on the Smith’s early material, like their 1983 single “Hand in Glove,” sounded more like a neutered mewl than a rock star howl. Back then, he wasn’t pushing from the abdomen; the man barely had a spine. But Saturday night, performing “Hand in Glove” as his first song, the reedy, grating tones were gone, replaced by a crooning vibrato he’s now enjoying as a musician on the cusp of 55. (His birthday is May 22.)
Morrissey’s shows, even in this arena, are transcendent for fans. Every song is a crowdpleaser, but this is a crowd that would love anything he did. He’s the master ringleader of the outsiders. He hugged first-row fans who clamored for and shouted “Gracias” and “Shalom!” as a shy attempt at stage patter. He played a few tracks from his upcoming album World Peace Is None of Your Business (out July) which, like many Morrissey and Smiths songs, takes multiple listens to understand. Not so for “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” a lilting anthem from his debut solo album, !Viva Hate! It was released in 1988 but in the oddly timeless world of a Morrissey concert, the crowd closed its eyes and sang like it was only yesterday.