Use your illusion

Or, How I almost forgot it wasn’t really the Smiths
By SHARON STEEL  |  May 23, 2006

When Jose Maldonado pushed onto the stage at the Middle East downstairs last Friday and crooned the opening verse to “Ask,” I suddenly realized what it requires to get tired hipsters to dance with abandon. No, it wasn’t the tedious sets by exhaustingly loud Interpol wanna-bes Blacklist and local neo-new-wavers the Information, who rock on MySpace but could not have looked more bored with life. What it took was a Morrissey look-alike and a group, such as Maldonado’s Morrissey tribute band the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, who are good enough to make you think that you’re seeing the Smiths play a tiny club in Cambridge and forget that this Cambridge isn’t the English one.

Maldonado is Latino and not English — a detail that if you’re intimate with the ludicrous demographics of Moz worship is not only unsurprising but almost inevitable. Unlike the actual Morrissey, he probably didn’t turn 47 this past Monday. But if I closed my eyes during the Hooligans’ “Unhappy Birthday to Morrissey” tribute set, I’d have trouble believing it wasn’t Moz up there sweetly singing “Every day is like Sunday, every day is silent and gray.” I really did know it wasn’t him. But there were the Hooligans launching into “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” and there was Jose tearing off his Fred Rogers cardigan, throwing his dork glasses aside, and unbuttoning his paisley shirt. And there was yours truly whooping it up with every other warm-blooded lady in the house, as if it were the real thing.

“You have incredibly good taste,” Maldonado sniffed, fluffing his pompadour. His mates — particularly guitarist and music director David Collett — were all wallflowery and shoegazery in their cowboy button-downs, and they melted into the background while I Can’t Believe It’s Not Morrissey gyrated at us. But they sounded perfect. At some point we were told that the Hooligans have been covering the Smiths and solo-Morrissey tunes for 14 years — more than twice as long as the Smiths were a band, half as long as Moz has been at it himself. It shows. “How Soon Is Now” had the audience singing at the top of its lungs, grooving, making out. Mal/Moz was the sweatiest of everyone, of course. You could measure the level of intensity by the stages of his undress. By mid “Panic” he was baring his chest and breaking out the androgynous stage moves. “Big Mouth Strikes Again” sounded so sharp that that guy — you know, the guy who loves the Smiths so much he wore a Smiths T-shirt to the Smiths tribute show — jumped on stage, engulfed Maldonado in a crippling bear hug, and brandished his can of PBR like a trophy. It was touching.

After the obligatory happy-birthday-to-Moz sing-along, Maldonado informed us that the Hooligans are touring the UK this summer. I don’t doubt their English shows will be as rowdy as this one. Put it this way: when the Hooligans closed with “There Is a Light that Never Goes Out,” I wasn’t surprised to see three girls — who Maldonado claimed had followed the band from their home base in Hollywood — rush the stage and shake it while Maldonado pressed the flesh with the front row. Sure, one girl had on a tanktop that read, “I Have Issues,” and another looked as if she were ready to knock over the bass player, but when Maldonado put his arm around her waist to steady her, I could tell by her smile that her illusion might as well have been the real thing.

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Sharon Steel: ssteel@phx.com

Related: High school memories, Used but not abused, License this!, More more >
  Topics: New England Music News , Interpol, Fred Rogers
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