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12th December 2023

The Johnny Marr Orchestra live in Manchester: A catalyst for a music renaissance?

Johnny Marr and his phenomenal orchestra merge classical music with Manchester classics at Factory International for two nights only, setting a bold new standard for live music
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The Johnny Marr Orchestra live in Manchester: A catalyst for a music renaissance?
Credit: Dan Massie

“Johnny Marr and an orchestra… you wouldn’t say no, would you?” asked Grammy award-winning film score composer Hans Zimmer in 2007. Zimmer wouldn’t, and nor would Johnny Marr and his devoted Manchester audience.

In fact, ‘Johnny Marr and Orchestra’ was exactly how the ex-Smiths guitarist decided to celebrate a decade of his solo career, in which he has become much more than just an era-defining guitarist – he’s now a self-assured frontman too. For two nights and two nights only Factory International was host to A Night with the Johnny Marr Orchestra, with conductor extraordinaire Fiona Brice and a 30-piece orchestra of exceptional North-West-based musicians all hand-picked by Marr himself.

Credit: David Palmer Press

Arriving at Aviva Studios proved to be a blur. Swarming fans, both old and new, marvelled at the architecture of Manchester’s newest cultural venue (all 13,350 square metres of it). The gig was held in the truly gargantuan Warehouse, at 21 metres high. 5,000 fans stood in awe, the atmosphere charged with a heavy, almost tangible, sense of nostalgia. Everyone knew that they were in for something special, and that they were the ones living it – right there, right then.

A single spotlight. Silence. Fiona Brice’s baton was glinting; it flashed and glistened. The crowd, utterly mesmerised, could not look away. And just like that, there was Marr himself. He rumbled into view, guitar in hand, as natural to him as his little finger must be. He jumped straight into his set with the electronic synth hit ‘Armatopia’, and with a “kiss of history”, the Johnny Marr Orchestra had begun.

The fullness of sound coming from the string section was enchanting: there was an air of longing, so palpable that, frankly, it was quite overwhelming. Hearing violins and cellos build up tracks such as ‘New Town Velocity’ felt like ears had been popped, as if Marr’s audience were finally listening to these songs how they were truly meant to be heard.

Looking out at his thousands of disciples, Marr moved through each track as if he were on a time-travelling pilgrimage. He spoke humbly about how “really super privileged” he felt to be the “first rock show” ever at Factory International. Flanked by his son, Nile Marr, he was honoured “as a Mancuniuon boy” to be back in his hometown, creating history. For him, it was once just a dream… “and now look!”, he exclaimed, with a sweeping hand gesture to the audience.

Credit: Andy Cotteril

The real showstopper of the night was, without a doubt, the arrangement of ‘How Soon is Now?’. As the first Smiths song of the night, it began with a resonant introduction by the strings section. Brice’s baton led the orchestra into a frenzy, building the anticipation until Marr’s tremolo guitar came in, reverberating from all four walls, eliciting a synchronised gasp of utter wonder from the crowd. These songs I thought I knew so well adopted a completely different meaning.

On sharing the songs of The Smiths with his audiences Marr said; “I feel like their sort of leader, conducting everybody.” With just his presence, Marr had everyone in the palm of his hand, “conducting” us all. He was the puppet master and each note was his strings. He truly orchestrated a symphony that felt like no Smiths song I’d ever heard.

His orchestral regard began much earlier, around 1979. This is explored in the 2023 publication of Marr’s Guitars, a mammoth photo book –  sold at the merch stand. After borrowing my brother’s copy (his personal bible), I was mystified by pages of the iconic guitars that created the sounds that defined a whole generation, that captured the entire Manchester music scene in a second, (“ [the guitars] came with Smiths songs in them”).

Credit: Andy Cotteril

The book explores how Marr was conducting orchestras in his mind long before writing film scores (Inception and No Time to Die) and fronting the transcendent symphony that evening. He would create records by multi-layering various guitar parts, armed with a tiny cassette machine. He began with just one guitar, creating what is referred to as “The Guitarchestra”; his own little ‘bedroom orchestra’ made up entirely of layers from just one instrument. In that crowd, it gave me shivers to think that one minute, a young Marr, a long, dark fringe obscuring his eyes, was creating era-defining guitar sounds on a tape recorder, and now he has a whole orchestra behind him…no humble cassette required.

Emotions were raw. As the stage was bathed in fragments of beautiful lights, Marr began a rendition of ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’. A serenade that felt like a dream, the orchestra created a performance that soared. This was where the brass section truly made every hair stand on end. Performances of ‘Walk Into the Sea’ and his most recent single ‘Somewhere’ solidified his undeniable talent as a rhythm guitarist and also as a figurehead of rock, whilst simultaneously capturing the youthful and boyish Marr.

The otherworldly stage lighting accompanied hits from a career spent carving his identifiable sound into various bands. Lasers and spotlights cavorted around the Warehouse in perfect time with the music, accentuating Electronic’s ‘Get the Message’ and ‘Getting Away with It’.

The evening concluded with an epic sing-along send-off to ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’- complete with a visual of the late Andy Rourke, fellow Smiths member – the perfect soundtrack for the sea of humming fans as they rejoined in the rainy streets of Manchester.

At Factory International, the possibilities are endless, an adaptable artistic space and an amazing cultural hub. A venue that seems to defy limits, it hosted a phenomenal orchestra of talent who left audiences absolutely astounded. As for Johnny Marr, his opening night was a fascinating portrayal of how deep his musical roots run. His ability to turn songs with such cemented sounds in pop culture into a layered and harmonic symphony makes me believe that he has set a distinctly bold new standard for the world of modern music. Is the music renaissance here at last?

Anna Marsden

Anna Marsden

Anna spends her time as a student photographer, mostly reading and drinking sparkling water.

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