Last Saturday thousands of eager Morrissey fans flocked to the Santa Barbara Bowl for a special concert in celebration of Día de los Muertos. The show, headlined by the former The Smiths frontman, also featured performances by Rubén Albarrán and Instituto Mexicano del Sonido (Mexican Institute of Sound). Though Morrissey was no doubt the main attraction, he was also by no means the sole focus of the event.
The steep uphill pilgrimage to the Bowl was marked with reminders of Día de los Muertos’s historical and cultural significance. In the spirit of the holiday, colorful flags and banners lined the walkways, while scenic pockets housed various altars honoring the lives of beloved musicians, artists, and cultural icons. Each altar was carefully crafted to reflect their legacies with creative arrangements of photographs, flowers, sugar skulls, and various other symbolic items.
In addition, altars commemorated the lives of victims of gun violence, including the lives lost in the 2014 tragedy.
Two pianists donning full-face sugar skull makeup sat side by side among the altars and provided entertainment as people filtered by to pay their respects to their departed heroes, before shuffling off to find their seats in the 4,500-seat open air amphitheater.
First on stage was Rubén Albarrán, a guitarist and songwriter from Mexico City. Albarrán didn’t perform live, instead opting to work his magic from behind a computer and standing microphone setup. Smooth, syncopated Latin beats framed his rich and expressive vocals perfectly, while dancers dressed in traditional attire hypnotically twirled in the wings. Albarrán acknowledged the purpose of the evening, sending “good thinking to the relatives and loved ones as we send them to the stars without worries or pre-occupations or human things.”
Just as the sun was beginning to set and a growing crowd joined in on the festivities, Instituto Mexicano del Sonido, an experimental electronic project also hailing from Mexico City, took the stage by storm. Camilo Lara, the mastermind behind the Latin psychedelic-electronic fusion was joined on stage by touring bandmates, who provided backing bass and drums.
To try to nail down a particular term for the eclectic funk that is IMS would be doing the project a great disservice. It isn’t simply Latin, and it isn’t strictly electronic. Instead it is a stand-alone, unique sound crafted from traces of punk, hip-hop, and rock elements informed by the rich culture of Latin folk origins.
Though Lara remained stationary behind his computer setup for most of the evening, he was incredibly animated, drawing the audience in with his impassioned vocals and lively stage presence. Vibrant, surreal imagery flashed across a large-scale screen overhead, turning the concert into something more akin to an acid trip, backed by an infectious Latin beat.
By the time Lara left the stage, the pit was packed to full capacity as people crowded together under the stars to await Morrissey’s entrance. And Morrissey, never one for subtlety, definitely delivered. Operatic singing broke the silence hanging in the air, as enormous stage lights glowed brighter and brighter with each note, until Morrissey and his band of skeletons finally emerged on stage. Over the roar of the crowd Morrissey theatrically proclaimed, “And to you I say Happy Death Day,” before launching into the anthemic Smiths’ song “How Soon Is Now?”
Theatricality ran through every step as Morrissey prowled the stage, microphone in hand. His stage presence, as he paced back and forth across the space baring his soul before the audience reaching out to him, was nothing short of magnetic. He masterfully built off the momentum of his long-awaited arrival, breathing new life into the 1984 classic. Judging by the uncontainable energy coursing through the crowd, Morrissey seemed to have the audience on strings.
Morrissey interjected his manic pacing with a fervent performance of “Speedway,” which he sang as a monologue of sorts. His solitary voice, gently backed by low, crooning guitars and a steady beat, only grew in intensity and power as the song progressed, before erupting in a shriek as the stage went black.
Morrissey’s performance of “Ganglord” was an incredibly powerful instance in which art and the context in which it is created connected in a way that served to remind the entire audience of the stark reality we live in. As inconceivably horrific clips of police brutality flashed across the screen, Morrissey extended his arm to the crowd as if reaching out to God, crying out in desperation, “Save me, save me, save me, save me.” In this way, his performance of “Ganglord” in particular humanized and explored an issue in a way only art can.
The stage lights faded until Morrissey was only a silhouette shrouded in billowing fog, pouring over the stage. He sang “Jack the Ripper,” a delightfully noir love song with just a hint of dread, with building conviction and desire.
With his next interjection, Morrissey had the audience hanging on every word. “I do feel very sorry for you, very sorry for me, very sorry for the world…I have shocking news for you. These are the good old days.”
Morrissey finished his show, still riding on the tidal wave of energy that started it, with crowd favorites such as “Everyday is Like Sunday,” “World Peace Is None Of Your Business,” and the ever-enduring “Suedehead,” which had the entire audience singing along with Morrissey’s exasperated vocals.
Morrissey didn’t hold back in terms of intensity whether in his performance or words to the crowd. Throughout the show, Morrissey was the definition of charming, and his caressing vocals, entertaining theatricality, and quick wit only made the already enamored audience fall more deeply in love with him.
As he exited the stage, warmth radiated through his last few words as he threw his arms out and proclaimed “I love you.” Though The Smiths, and by extension Morrissey, have seen their heyday come and go, Morrissey still stands as a beloved poet and prophet of the disillusioned youth. And for many fans, myself included, there is some solace in the fact that Morrissey still weeps with the bleeding hearts of the world.