DURHAM -- Coming into Morrissey's Durham show, there was cause to worry that it wouldn't be good. He'd had to cancel some recent shows on this tour due to illness, and there were reports of an abbreviated and perfunctory performance in Myrtle Beach last week.
But in front of an adoring crowd at the Durham Performing Arts Center Wednesday night, there was no sign of trouble at all. In fact, Morrissey came out and served up an oldie the crowd was pumped for right off the bat -- "This Charming Man." It was indeed charming, and so was he.
As he approaches 50, Morrissey exudes a vaguely professorial vibe. He entered the stage amidst his band, as if he were just one of the guys, looking a bit rumpled in jeans and an untucked button-down shirt. But all he had to do was grab the microphone, and he had your attention. There's just no substitute for charisma, even if it's decidedly unconventional.
Fronting a loud five-piece band, he came across not unlike romantic poet Lord Byron as a rock star, plumbing the depths of his melodramatic soul in that unmistakable croon. "She told me she loved me/Which means she must be insane" -- there's just nobody who does self-loathing like Morrissey.
By now, Morrissey has been a solo act for multiples longer than he was frontman of his landmark 1980s-vintage band, The Smiths. Still, he'll be singing some of those songs for the rest of his life. The signature "How Soon Is Now" came up just 15 minutes into the show, and it's still one of the most amazing head-crushing riffs ever. It concluded very theatrically, with the drummer beating on a gong as Morrissey laid out on his back.
While he can be distant onstage, Wednesday night Morrissey seemed in good and almost playful spirits. He kept up a steady stream of cryptic between-song chatter ("To give is the reason we live." "This is the arts center, and we are art."), went down front to shake a few hands and even handed his microphone over to some fans to hear what they had to say:
"We love you!"
"We're so glad you're here!"
The set ranged all over his catalog, drawing a handful of songs from the new album "Years of Refusal" (Attack/Lost Highway Records). "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" was especially good, with a beautiful chiming pop riff. And right on cue, a couple of people from the crowd came onstage to throw their arms around Morrissey. He didn't seen to mind too much, although that didn't stop security from dragging the offending huggers off.
At the conclusion of the 90-minute set, he took off his shirt and flung it into the crowd. I've never thought of Morrissey as the type who'd give you the shirt off his back, but there you go.