Emily Tartanella 23/07/2007

At some point, this ceased to be a concert. Maybe it was after a second furious de-shirting on Morrissey's part, or when the seventh young man jumped on stage and pawed at his idol, but I felt convinced I had stepped into an Evangelical revival. I saw tears, sweat, and a considerable amount of hair gel. And yet, this almost didn't happen.

The troubled saga of Morrissey's recent North American tour starts with the plague. Or rather, the sniffles. Our wayward pop star contracted a throat ailment that risked ruining his entire tour, and with dates cancelled left and right the outlook was decidedly bleak. I had given up entirely, until a friend phoned with the good news of an extra pair of tickets to his Philadelphia date. It was happening. Probably. Fifty-fifty chance, at least.

Opening the show were the vocal histrionics of Kristeen Young. Judging by the number of cleverly-coiffed indie kids milling around outside the venue, waiting for her Bjork-inspired wailing to end, she wasn't the best choice for this crowd. But after several clips from James Dean's East of Eden, Morrissey himself stepped out, looking fighting-fit and trimmer than ever. I was, admittedly, still doubtful. Only weeks ago he had walked out of a Boston gig due to illness. But a rousing performance of “The Queen is Dead” showed off his showman flair like no other. Throughout the show, we were treated to all the usual flourishes: writhing on the ground, stage-divers, and self-flagellation with a microphone chord (only at a Morrissey show is flagellation typical behavior). But it's the night's ferocious first song, “The Queen is Dead,” that still stays with me.

In true Morrissey style, the bar was set nearly too high even with the opener. What an overachiever. To tweak the classic lyrics from the Smiths' great third album to “She said I know you and you cannot sing/ I said 'Of course I can, you silly bitch'” takes considerable nerve. Altered lyrics and snippets of wit were everywhere, and fans were noticeably pleased to see that these changes accompanied performances of classic Smiths songs. From the giddy “Girlfriend in a Coma” to a poignant “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” Morrissey continued to hold his claim as the bearer of the Smiths' legacy; needless to say Johnny Marr won't be covering any such tracks with Modest Mouse.

Morrissey has, for years, played Smiths numbers in his own shows, and what could feel like shameless pandering comes off as completely sincere. He is our very own lost boy; never having truly matured from the gawky vegetarian he was when he wrote those immortal lyrics. He's better dressed, and might have filled out a little, but that tension between the fame he possesses and his own self-image makes him a continually engaging performer.

It's that same tension which spurred works like “Paint a Vulgar Picture” so many years ago: Morrissey is the fan who inadvertently became the idol. He was never a rockstar, despite rocking out with the best of them. Rather, his classic ironic -or is it insecure? - wit prompted him tonight to change the lyrics of fan favorite “First of the Gang To Die”, claiming that the song's antihero “stole from the rich - which is you/ and the poor - which is me.” Never mind that royalties alone could make this simple Manchester boy richer than most of his fans combined, or that he recently lived in a posh Los Angeles palace. The sentiment here is more honest than any cloying pop song could be; Morrissey hasn't grown up, and neither have we. He's gotten famous but he's never liked fame. Even when ripping off his tailored shirts three separate times, to the screaming mania of the crowd, he smiles coyly and admonishes: “Oh, it's only a shirt.” He's always been big, but it's his self-image that's stayed small.

Which isn't to say he's lacking in ego. Who can forget the stage appearances surrounded literally by his own name in lights? Or the numerous coy remarks; via the NME? Even his setlist tonight smacks of egotism, choosing to highlight either the obscure (“I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” “Whatever Happens, I Love You,” the possibly racist “National Front Disco”), or the questionable tracks from his recent Ringleader of the Tormentors (“Life is a Pigsty,” “At Last I Am Born”). This is not to say that those songs are unwanted, or badly performed; rather, his stirring live renditions of newer numbers elevate them above their recordings. True, we are handed the obligatory “How Soon is Now?” and a killer “Everyday is Like Sunday,” but no “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” arguably the Smiths' greatest song. No “Shoplifters of the World Unite.”

But then again, this is all fandom quibbling. Debates for the forums, more fodder for the fans. Seeing Morrissey in concert, even with an obscure setlist, even with the threat of disease still lingering, is tantamount to a religious experience. Inexplicable, monumental, with Moz himself: leading the prayers. And with hands outstretched, seemingly speaking in tongues, fans launch themselves at him like jet fighters or penitents in prayer. During a fantastic closing performance of “Last of the Famous International Playboys,” it seems even the reluctant boyfriends dragged along have been swayed. Morrissey may just be a singer, but to us strange few, he's something more. He's the hero we have never quite been able to understand. And in our own strange way, we've always been true to him.

Image Tim Shaffer for The New York Times.