For such a towering musical icon he looked small, but anyone would from the back row of the upper tier of a vast, fan-shaped arena accommodating 13,000. The Desperate Dan jaw, shoe-brush eyebrows and quiff-hawk hair (now in grey) were still there, as was the voice, sounding miraculously unchanged in 30 years (and that’s despite recent treatment for throat cancer). As for the swagger, no longer that of the disarming young man spinning around dangling gladioli from his pocket, more that of a fit-but-stiff 50-something trying not to get too dizzy on the old dance floor.

Morrissey has always aimed his mean streak at those “murderous” meat-eaters, but the Vegan with the capital V-sign has been known to be pretty unpleasant even to his most loyal fans. Would he behave himself in Leeds – unlike during the first gig on this UK and Ireland tour for his new album, Low in High School, when he managed to offend his huge Glasgow audience by insulting Nicola Sturgeon?

On this occasion, he thanked Leeds for the honour and the privilege and, rather than disdainfully ignoring his worshippers, he at times briefly touched hands beseechingly reaching out to him from below. At one point he even called out “I love you, I love you” but it came across firmly at the sarcastic end of the spectrum.

The genius of Morrissey is not in his banter but his lyrics, yet catching crucial words above music amplified enough to make your ears melt is not easy. But here, thankfully, every cut-throat clause came through, and the new album’s lyrics were as sharply and cleanly thrown as newly honed daggers, especially in the brilliant I Wish You Lonely and Jacky’s Only Happy, as well as in Spent the Day in Bed, (with its anti-anthemic lines “stop watching the news, because the news contrives to frighten you, to make you feel small and alone”). 

The set featured only a handful of ‘old’ songs (plus a nice version of Pretenders’ tune Back on the Chain Gang). One, bringing the gig to its euphoric finale, was the beautiful Every Day is Like Sunday. Another, a spine-tingling rendition of the transcendent How Soon Is Now?, was the high point of the night. With its hypnotic tremolo guitar pulse embedded beneath some of the most poignant lyrics of his life, Morrissey was never more utterly cool than when, in the middle of this favourite of all Smiths songs, he shrank to the ground as though felled suddenly by the despair (his “black dog”) that has pursued him since his youth. There he crouched like a man in a straitjacket, with his back to us, while the music slowly bled into a stroboscopic-percussion salvo that ended with the thrash of a gong.

The great showman’s final gesture was to tear off his shirt, fling it into the crowd, turn on his suave heel and disappear. Pure theatre, vintage Morrissey.

By Matthew Connolly 

(Main image: Monika Stolarska)