It has been 18 years since Matt Johnson’s The The last performed in North America before this current tour. Eighteen fucking years. Just think of all that has happened in this country since then: The lows of the George W. Bush years, the highs and, perhaps cruelly, the hope that arrived with Obama, and then the crushing low of this current administration.
And that’s just politics. The music industry has changed beyond all recognition while Johnson has been away, scoring movies and taking care of his personal life, which itself has seen more than its fair share of tragedy. And yet, while streaming and downloading have become the normal way of listening to music, while the public pretty much flat out refuses to pay for music anymore and touring has become the great source of income for bands and musicians, one constant remains: The world will always need artists like Johnson.
Poets who can delve inside his, and in turn our own, psyche and help explain the madness of the human condition. Performers who make us feel like we're not alone when we're feeling excluded from the rest of the world. As he says himself, paraphrasing an old review, "We make music for people with small bedrooms and spacious minds." That covers it.
At the Hollywood Palladium on Tuesday evening, the second of two Los Angeles dates, he was greeted not rabidly but reverentially. The gentle applause and mild cheers when he took to the stage didn't feel at all like apathy but rather a deep respect. Like, “Johnson’s going to say or play something — pay attention.”
Johnson himself was jovial and warm — occasionally funny and always incisive. He talked a lot between songs, either to offer an anecdote of that track’s origins or simply to shoot the shit with an attentive audience. But in his own inimitable way, he did demand that everyone remove distractions.
“We’re an old-fashioned band,” he says. “No effects or in-ear monitors. We ask that you put down your iPhones. I don’t want to look out at a sea of screens, and you all have such lovely, healthy, California faces.”
People pretty much obliged, and the performance benefited. These songs are so good, Johnson’s voice still so mesmeric, that they can carry you away if you let them.
The set list was spectacular, pulling from every The The album but weighted heavily toward Dusk. Johnson explained this by saying he wrote that record following the death of his younger brother, and his older brother died at the start of the tour so he was in the same mindset. So we get “Love Is Stronger Than Death,” “Dogs of Lust,” “This Is the Night,” “Slow Emotion Replay,” and “Helpline Operator,” plus a beautiful, closing “Lonely Planet.”
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The fan-favorite Infected album was represented by “Sweet Bird of Truth” and the title track, both of which sounded stunning, while other highlights included “Bugle Boy” from the Burning Blue Soul album (originally released under Matt Johnson’s name but later repackaged as a The The record) and “I Saw the Light” from Hanky Panky, the 1995 Hank Williams cover album.
This was, quite simply, the The The performance fans had been waiting nearly two decades for. The rest of the musicians were flawless, Johnson pulling from various eras (bassist James Eller and keyboardist DC Collard played on Dusk, while excellent drummer Earl Harvin was on the Naked Self album). Lead guitarist Barrie Cadogan is the sole newbie, having been recommended by Johnny Marr (who couldn’t take part due to his solo commitments).
The sound at the Palladium was perfect, and the screen behind the band projected images that enhanced the show without distracting from it.
We can only hope it won’t be another 18 years before they’re back.