The Carolina Theatre, Durham
Monday, June 15

Morrissey knows what his fans want. From the moment concertgoers cleared the surprisingly thorough security, they were confronted with imagery designed to push all of the buttons of a Smiths fan. At the merch table, “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me” pillowcases were hung next to “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” totebags. The “opening act” was a 30-minute montage of videos. Ramones, Jacques Brel and New York Dolls live footage, was combined with Allen Ginsberg interviews, a Flamenco dancer and an Anne Sexton poetry reading—a curated tour of the icons and iconoclasts that influenced the artist.

The lights went down, up came the walk-on music of Klaus Nomi’s operatic “Wayward Sisters,” a diptych backdrop of Bruce Lee, in a fighting stance, appeared on the video screen, the band strolled out, assumed something resembling a football huddle, there was a Mancunian-accented utterance of “nothing could be finer … than to be in Carolina,” and a particularly robust version of “The Queen Is Dead” was underway before anyone knew what hit them. People still reeling from the previous half hour’s barrage of cultural references snapped out of it and got down to the business of seeing one of the greatest live performers of his generation do his thing.

And it is a “thing,” mind you. The National Health-issued glasses and student wardrobe may have been long ago cast aside in favor of a more tan, Los Angelian Moz, but at the heart of it all is a man who has his schtick down pat. As the band churned through the first few songs, anti-Thatcher and anti-Royalist imagery flashed across the screen, superimposed with Morrissian wit, such as “United King-dumb.” Apart from the modern production, fans would be forgiven for thinking it was 1985. The 56-year-old is currently dealing with some health issues, but it wasn’t apparent, as he went from one Vegas-style pose to the next, taking bows, being a gracious and appreciative host. He occasionally strained to hit a high note, but he did hit them every single time.

Solo Morrissey has always favored a backing band in matching outfits, and his was decked out in dockworker denim livery, complete with suspenders, but their personalities as players shined through nonetheless. Long-time collaborator, guitarist Boz Boorer, commanded the left side of the stage, the right flank being held down multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Manzur, whose influence is apparent on the latest album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, with it’s many world music-tinged tunes. The band was incredibly tight, and in top form, to the point where a happy accident was not likely to happen.

Not content to ride only on old themes, “Ganglord” was backdropped by recent images of police brutality, including the April shooting of Walter Scott, by Charleston police officer Michael Slager. The “get yourself back to the ghetto” lyrics of the 2006 song seemed particularly prescient, considering it was written long before the incidents in Ferguson, or before George Zimmerman’s name was in the news. The band then segued into “World Peace Is None Of Your Business,” with it’s “each time you vote you support the process” chorus, as if to drive the point home, though it seemed a little at odds with the anti-poll tax imagery from earlier in the show.

The mostly middle-aged, capacity crowd, enjoyed themselves, but acted their age, apart from the few odd stage rushers, who were handled pretty roughly by security—apparently not getting the message that the cops are out to get us all. The clearly nostalgic audience didn’t really go through the motions until, during “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” it happened: slowly rising above the sea of heads, in the standing front row, as if they were growing in a time lapse film, a single bundle of gladioli rose up to kiss the Patron Saint of Mopiness.

The 90-minute set was uncharacteristically light on Smiths material until the end. During “Meat Is Murder” the audience was treated to a Faces of Death: CAFO Edition film loop of such pleasantries as cows getting their throats slit, the debeaking process, various beheadings and more than a smattering of blood splattering. It sucked the air out of the room, but you have to hand it to him: Whereas bands like Gang Of Four have adopted a more nuanced approach to their politics as they’ve aged, Morrissey hasn’t softened his message one bit. Like the print on the coffee mug at the merch table advised, “Be Nice To Animals Or I’ll Kill You.”

An antidote to the bummer vibes immediately followed as the band ended the set with “What She Said,” from the same album. A guy grinning ear-to-ear (and positively reeking of weed) ambled down the aisle, snapping photos against the artist’s wishes, as if he just couldn’t believe his luck that he was actually witnessing a Smiths song being sung by the man himself, in a surprisingly intimate venue, perhaps for the last time (if some of the rumors are to believed). After a single song encore, a “vaya con dios!” and the ceremonial tossing of the sweat-soaked holy shroud into the crowd, it was over. Fans that might have been reduced to tears decades ago nodded heads approvingly and politely filed out.