The first triumph of Morrissey‘s headlining set at Riot Fest was that he showed up to perform it—over the past two decades, he’s established a track record of postponing or canceling tour dates due to pneumonia, respiratory infections, mystery illnesses, and other complications. Fans whose patience has been tested by an artist who seems to have little regard for them often repay that neglect with hostility, but Saturday night’s crowd instead welcomed Morrissey with a collective sigh of relief when he showed up a mere 33 minutes late. It’s quite a strategy—to be so unreliable that your fans give you a pass for only wasting a little bit of their time and money.
Morrissey stuck to his own standards in other ways too—festival food vendors had to halt all cooking and selling of meat while the vegan crooner performed, and he included few songs recognizable to anyone but superfans. His only nod to his old band the Smiths was a quick run through their 1985 B side “What She Said” (also on the album Meat Is Murder), which concluded the 72-minute set. He also kept his solo hits to a minimum, beginning with “Suedehead” and singing fan favorite “Every Day Is Like Sunday” toward the end of the night (both are from his 1988 solo debut, Viva Hate). The filling of the Morrissey sandwich was mostly deep cuts, or at least deeper cuts, many reflecting his increasingly political lyrical themes. He also commented directly on the current electoral climate. “In England we have a new prime minister that no one voted for, but you know the game,” he explained to introduce “Irish Blood, English Heart” (from 2004’s You Are the Quarry). Before belting out his 2014 protest song “World Peace Is None of Your Business,” he addressed the American presidential election. “As far as November is concerned, you know that they had to get rid of Bernie Sanders because he’s the only one who said ‘No more war.'” The song’s hook made his disgust even plainer: “Each time you vote / You support the process.”
Overall it was a solid if unremarkable set by a man who’s graduated from the ranks of Alternative Rock Heartthrobs (or perhaps aged out of them) and continued to forge a meaningful career—despite being completely unpredictable and often disastrously opinionated. He’s dynamic enough onstage, but that’s not the real draw—what makes him special is that his voice remains undiminished in its nasal silkiness and ability to sustain a note till its potential is realized. Charisma radiates from Morrissey as powerfully as the stage lights shining off his bare chest and glistening silver locks. But the whole thing felt a bit rehearsed and lacking in guts, even when he was wailing about the horrible rich, the pain in the world, and our broken political systems. His most off-the-cuff moment was a brief arrhythmic dalliance with a tambourine—he shook it so erratically that you’d think it was the first time they’d met. But again, it’s Morrissey, and his fans will likely be satisfied that he turned up at all. Though the show was merely serviceable, at least we got a taste of the man in the flesh.