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Manic Street Preachers

Welsh rockers the Manic Street Preachers played a sell out show at Wolves Civic on Monday. Steve Beauchampé checked them out (photos are by Charlie Chan, from Cheltenham!)

The notion of musical artists basing a tour, one-off show or short residency around a classic or favoured album has become something of a trend in recent years.

It’s given bands the opportunity to showcase work produced perhaps several decades ago, to revive old favourites and find out how they measure up to the passage (or ravages) of time, before rounding the evening off with a few career classics.

Tie this in with a re-release (bonus tracks, alt takes etc) of said album and from a marketing perspective at least, it’s a way of earning extra monies through playing the nostalgia card, especially for artists whose new material may go largely unheard perhaps for no other reason than their being ‘unfashionable’.

Welsh indie faves the Manic Street Preachers have given the phenomenon a new twist by playing their NEW album Journal For Plague Lovers straight through, from start to finish, on their current tour.

Manic Street Preachers

Yet Journal is definitely not just another new Manic’s album. Instead it sets music to the final (artistic at least) words of Richey James Edwards, the band’s charismatic talisman who disappeared without trace in February 1995, his car found abandoned by the Severn Bridge.

A month before his disappearance Edwards (recently declared officially dead) presented his band mates with a folder of writings, sketches etc. In hindsight, it’s clear that this was his last lyrical will and testament, but such an act of sharing was in keeping with Edwards’ relationship with his colleagues and so was not seen at the time as a portent of future events.

For fourteen years the three remaining Manics - guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore - have handled Edwards’ departure and legacy with remarkable sensitivity and dignity.

They continue to put royalties aside for his estate, have never replaced him and refuse publicly to accept that he is dead. It helps that the band are a mixture of school friends and relatives, but there’s a resilience at their core which has seen them through both the emotional turmoil and a commercial (and to a lesser extent critical) downturn that has resulted in their moving from playing mainly arena shows to medium-size venues in recent years.

2007’s acclaimed No 1 selling album Send Away The Tigers helped spark a resurgence in fortunes, to the extent that the band finally felt able to work on Edwards’ portfolio without being accused of using it to re-launch a waning career, Nonetheless, the process was at times agonising, the weight of responsibility to do justice to the work probably greater than for any recent Manic’s album.

Perhaps logical then to perform the work in its entirety on a concert tour. After all, theatrical plays and classical music symphonies are presented in full, so why not rock albums? Thus the first half of tonight’s show is a performance of Journal for Plague Lovers, the second an hour of Manic Street Preachers ‘greatest hits’.

The contrast between sets is remarkable. With the album on sale for just two weeks, no doubt many of tonight’s full house (the show pretty much sold out the day tickets went on sale) are still familiarising themselves with it’s complex textures and lyrical breadth.

Manic Street Preachers

Much is not immediate, though Edwards’ ability to identify frauds, hypocrites and the self-serving elite shines through, his words, bleeding political and emotional insight from every line, as potent now as when they were penned, all played out to the backdrop of arguably the most visceral buzz saw punk rock guitar James Dean Bradfield has ever produced.  
While album (and thus set) opener Peeled Apples and single Jackie Collins Existential Question Time have featured widely on radio, TV and in ‘live’ sessions, and thus enjoy noisy receptions, the other material is received with attention, respect and a degree of reverence. In time, favourites will emerge, but for tonight most of us are still on a learning curve where this work is concerned.

A ten-minute break and the band return, augmented by sessionists Wayne Murray (guitar) and Sean Read (keyboards), Bradfield sweeps up to the mic and announces Motorcycle Emptiness

Everything changes: raucous sing-along choruses, the crowd (previously more like an audience) swaying and dancing where before was restraint; no longer spectators, now participants. On stage however, one man remains almost unmoved.

Three weeks ago, Nicky Wire suffered a prolapsed disc in his back while performing his customary on stage leaps and jumps during a recording of BBC 2’s Later. By rights he should be lying down, recuperating, the tour cancelled. Not a bit of it, he’s here, somewhat immobile, at times grimacing through the pain, a real troubadour.

Belying the myth that bass players are static and boring, Wire contributes so much visual oomph to a Manics show (he’s also the group’s chief lyricist) that his reduced input inevitably focuses extra attention on lead vocalist Bradfield. He wears the mantle well and with such enthusiasm.

And why not; plucking gems from a near twenty-year back catalogue (and a notable percentage from Richey’s period) Motown Junk; If White America Told The Truth For One Day It’s World Would Fall Apart; If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next (the band rarely go in for short song titles) sound fresh and relevant (especially the latter with it’s anti-fascist message).

Perennial crowd pleasers You Love Us, Australia and more recent offerings  Your Love Alone Is Not Enough and Autumnsong (from Send Away The Tigers), keep the crowd jumping throughout the hall, and even though You Stole The Sun From My Heart is played Wirelessly (Nicky leaves the stage, perhaps for some painkillers, perhaps to take out his frustration at his limited mobility in private) both Bradfield and Sean Moore, whose lowest of low key stage persona (never a word, just the odd smile and one wave) hides his solid dependability, are experienced enough to keep everything on track.

Nicky returns and A Design For Life, from 1997s Everything Must Go album, closes proceedings. It‘s a rip-snorting climax (even session guitarist Wayne Murray is jumping and singing heartily), and while the roof of Wolves Civic was never likely to actually rise, nearly 3,000 people do their best to lift it a few millimetres at least!

For almost two decades, the Manics have created a joyous soundtrack by melding political awareness, insightful lyricism and anthemic indie rock. The band remain as relevant as ever, their songs undiluted by the passage of time…in rock and roll terms, truly a design for life!

(The author is also indebted to the guy who stood directly in front of him during the first part of the show wearing a t-shirt listing the new album’s track titles…a living set list no less!)



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