By Bobby Talamine
Welcome back to Chicago, Matt Johnson. Oh how we’ve missed you. This tour of Matt Johnson and his band The The: we can be so lucky. Only nine dates in the states. The tour started in Boston, then went to new York for a couple of dates, heading west to Chicago with a stop on Saturday at the Riviera Theatre.
Such anticipation from the faithful waiting for the doors to open at the Riv- talking about which songs Matt might play, which album was everybody’s favorite, how he’ll look, what about the band (and is Johnny Marr going to show up?)..you know, small conversation to speed up the time to get in the venue. My answers to those within earshot: Matt played a good variety of songs from each of his albums (more on this in a bit).
My favorite The The album: Can’t name one. But I do adore “Soul Mining” into “Infected” into “Mind Bomb”. Matt actually looks nice and healthy, and his voice is definitely in fine range, and he came out dressed and pressed in a fine long sleeve shirt and black pants. No Johnny Marr sighting, and this should be a given, since A: the band members were announced long ago in the wake of this tour coming to the states, and B: Johnny was just in town last week at Riot Fest, and is currently on tour with his band.
Now onto the show.
A long and awaited return of Matt Johnson and The The, sorely missed in this confusing day and age, and well worth every penny to see Matt perform live with his whipsmart band. And they don’t disappoint: Matt opens the set heavily backlit with contrasty black and white, his back to the audience, getting involved with his bandmates to the opening of “Global Eyes” a nice little gem when Matt left Epic Records and ended up on Trent Reznor’s Nothing Label, and released the album “Naked Self”. Who’d of thought that? What a pleasant surprise, although difficult to photograph, but still, who cares. The song has that “The The” sound down cold, with lyrics in Matt’s biting and critical and questioning fashion: “Mobilize, globalize, hypnotize, homogenize, shut your eyes, don’t criticize….” And off we go, heading full steam into “Sweet Bird of Truth”, one of my favorite songs from The The, and the album “Infected”, a song with bleakness at its core, a fighter pilot ready to snap at any given moment, going insane and hellbent on a path of utter destruction. So convincing this song is, and its accompanying video back in 1986. And it still sounds so haunting and in your face.
From this moment on into the show, you realize quickly that Matt’s touring band is staying true to the original songs, but with restraint, emphasizing the low key elements of each song, and not going full bore like the original releases. This to me is is refreshing, not that it could be a sign of old age creeping in, arthritis, or whatever, but more emphasizing the songs and their magic through Matt Johnson, and the importance of the lyrics.
Matt made it known at this point how much he was intrigued with Chicago from an early age: his dad had a painting in the bar his dad owned in East London depicting the Chicago skyline from the early sixties, looking north up Michigan Avenue to the old Prudential building, and that it still hangs to this day in his flat in London. Love to hear sincere stories like that, and Matt embracing our wonderful city in the midwest.
The fiercely looking Matt Johnson still holds that lower baritone yet gravelly voice of his, which just makes things sound so sinister and welcome to songs such as the above “Sweet Bird of Truth”, and especially to “Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)”, a song still so relevant as ever, biting and gnarly to it’s core on the state of organized religions in the modern world, questioning everything with a nasty commentary. The buildup is complete and evident up to the last lines in constant refrain, and holding true to form, Matt’s upper register is intact singing the main line of “Armageddon” to wonderful applause.
What gets this crowd to dance on the main floor are clearly the songs from “Soul Mining”, “This is the Day”, “Uncertain Smile”, and especially “I’ve Been Waiting For Tomorrow (All of My Life)”. So many people on the main floor pogoing in place to that song in particular, like we as a whole haven’t aged one bit since the song came out back in 1981, like we’re reliving our nights hanging out at the old Exit nightclub on Wells, or at Smartbar below the Metro, going apeshit when the DJ would play that song in particular.
Like a precursor into all things Industrial Music – this song definitely is. Has a metallic and heavy drumbeat, anxiety ridden lyrics with Matt singing in such a way that you feel he’ll lose his tonsils at any moment, a blast furnace of buildup beats, done with swing at its core. This song is without a doubt, the end all – be all. And tonight, still with the heavy backbeat, but dialed down with restraint in the band, but clearly evident, the urgency of the lyrics, and watching the crowd pogoing in place.
How fun this is, Matt Johnson and The The. These songs that Matt Johnson wrote and performed, are still so timeless, still so fresh. It’s been a 16 long years to hear them performed live, the last time I believe he performed in Chicago was at the Metro, to what I witnessed was a confusing crowd during the “Naked Self” tour, Matt playing mostly acoustic with a crowd not wanting to be quiet, with lots of distractions.
Before that his band opened for Depeche Mode’s “Songs of Faith and Devotion” tour in 1991-92, with abbreviated and all too short opening sets.
So to have Matt and The The play a 23 song setlist as he is doing on this current “Comeback” tour, is refreshing and delightful indeed. Even towards the end of the show Matt made a joke about the long time between getting out on the road again, and made it known that the time between recording and touring in the future will definitely be shorter than sixteen long years. That’s welcome new indeed.
Lord knows we need more of Matt Johnson and The The.
For more on The The, click here
For photos from the show at The Chicago Theatre, click here
Setlist: The The live in Chicago at The Chicago Theatre 9-22-18
1: Global Eyes
2: Sweet Bird of Truth
3: Flesh and Bones
5: The Beat(en) Generation
6: Armageddon days Are Here (Again)
7: We Can’t Stop What’s Coming
8: Beyond Love
9: Love Is Stronger Than Death
10: Dogs of Lust
11: Helpline Operator
12: This Is The Night
13: This Is The Day
14: Soul Catcher
15: Bugle Boy
16: Slow Emotion Replay
17: I Saw The Light (Hank Williams cover)
18: Like a Sun Risin Thru My Garden
20: I’ve Been Waitin’ for Tomorrow (All of My Life)
21: True Happiness This Way Lies
22: Uncertain Smile
23: Lonely Planet