BY THOMAS CONNER
How did the Smiths' Johnny Marr become indie-rock's hired gun?
Since the dissolution of the Smiths, Marr has played with a lengthy list of other stars -- from the Pretenders and Neil Finn to Modest Mouse and now the Cribs. They don't seem to pick him as much as he picks them up, sidling up to them like a swinger and telling them how much he loves their music. His cred -- the ringing, complex guitar he contributed to the Smiths, not his proximity to Morrissey -- makes them salivate and, voila!, Marr stays employed.
His work with the Cribs in their early-afternoon set Sunday at Lollapalooza sure seemed like that: work. It's not like he's adding much more than muscle to this band, a trio of brothers before Marr joined a couple of years ago -- no distinctive Rickenbacker, no skipping "This Charming Man" kinds of melodies. Just good, hard grinding with the other Jarman boys (singer-guitarist Gary, bassist-singer Ryan and drummer Ross). Which is no complaint; he holds the line solidly -- doing his bit on the side of the stage with confidence and a general lack of expression -- while Gary and Ryan are free to caterwaul and fling themselves (and their melodies) all over the stage. His chords underneath the desperate squeals of "Cheat on Me" certainly sounded like the Marr we (older fans, that is) could easily recognize, and then finished with use of the whammy bar and a slide. But as the last song disintegrated in feedback, with Gary and Ryan rubbing their instruments on their amps for maximum noise, Marr was putting his jacket back on. Shift's over.
A focus on Marr, however, is just another tragic result of a Gen-X Smiths fan at the helm of this particular report -- an unjust diversion from a perfectly good, punkish rock band. The front Jarmans are the real entertainment, Ryan of the bowl haircut and spit-out lyrics, Gary of the pigeon-toed, neck-straining leaps toward the mic. For "Men's Needs," Ryan leapt to a lower platform, pricking a brief solo before the girls in front (wearing Smiths T-shirts). The Cribs lash out at their own songs, yelp-singing and thrashing around, knocking over mic stands without a hint of script. A labored "Be Safe," with jagged video accompaniment of some guy whining about "the complacent ones" (eye rolling here), completely stalled the band's momentum midway through the set, but they rallied.