Gig review: Blondie & Johnny Marr at First Direct Arena, Leeds

On paper it’s quite a pairing. One of American rock and pop’s finest groups of the last 45 years with British indie rock’s greatest guitar hero as an opening act. But an evening with Blondie and Johnny Marr turns out to be so much more.

Debbie Harry of Blondie performing at the First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Anthony Longstaff
Debbie Harry of Blondie performing at the First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Anthony Longstaff

Marr and his four-piece band deliver a storming opening set that includes Spirit, Power and Soul and Walk Into the Sea, choice cuts from his latest psychedelia-infused album Fever Dreams Pts 1-4, alongside copper-bottomed classics from his previous bands The Smiths and Electronic.

“Has anyone got any requests?” he asks before launching into This Charming Man; Electronic’s Getting Away With It he describes as “a disco song from Manchester”. The plaintive Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want pulls at the heartstrings while How Soon Soon Is Now fills the arena with its juggernaut riff. With his catchiest solo song Easy Money and a joyful extended version of There Is A Light thrown in for good measure, this is a guest slot that fully deserves its standing ovation.

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Blondie might be missing co-founder Chris Stein, sidelined in the US due to ill-health, but singer Debbie Harry remains a hugely charismatic presence and original drummer Clem Burke is quite the dynamo behind the kit. Augmented by former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock on bass and younger players Matt Katz-Bohen on keyboards, and Tommy Kessler and Andee Blacksugar on guitars, they’re formidable live performers.

Andee Blacksugar and Tommy Kessler of Blondie at the First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Anthony Longstaff

A two-hour setlist that starts by showing off their punk credentials with X Offender, accompanied by a frantic blur of Pop Art imagery, and a punchy version of Hanging On The Telephone then alternates between crowd-pleasing hits and deeper cuts including Shayla, from their 1979 album Eat To The Beat, and from their more recent catalogue Mother, What I Heard and Long Time.

They’re not afraid of deconstructing songs too – Fade Away (and Radiate) veers from New Wave to prog then reggae; The Tide Is High swings between a Caribbean lilt and punky riffing; in Atomic Kessler starts shredding on his guitar then harmonises with Blacksugar. “They have very fast fingers,” observes Harry saucily.

(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear and Union City Blue are played relatively straight but their melodies still chime. My Monster is included as a homage to its composer Johnny Marr, who Harry says they are “fortunate” to be on tour with, while Rapture retains its pop-rap charm.

Maria, their 1999 comeback chart-topper, Dreaming, and a delirious rendition of Heart of Glass that segues into Donna Summer’s I Feel Love and the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen round off the set in stunning style.

Blondie are not done yet, though. Fragments, from their 2017 album Pollinator, may seem a bold choice of encore, but it’s a good one, with Harry repeatedly enquiring “Do you love me now?”

Call Me boasts a dizzy keytar solo from Katz-Bohen before they finally bid farewell with a romp through One Way Or Another. All in all, quite a night with two bands on top form.