Watched by a socially distanced crowd of just 150, in a hall well over 10 times that capacity, and with rigorous COVID security measures in place, this was a strange setting for the return of the Manic Street Preachers. However, the preceding 18 months have been far stranger, so for Wales’ greatest rock band to even be performing a live show has the aura of a minor miracle. As frontman James Dean Bradfield sweetly put it, “this feels weird but nice. Like candyfloss.”
Following an introduction by Jo Whiley (the set was being recorded for a Radio 2 show next month), the Manics arrived on stage to a slim but ecstatic crowd, attendees having been assigned tickets via a lottery. Throughout this 75-minute set, the St David’s Hall audience cheered relentlessly, laughed at the between-song banter and swooned as their hearts were melted by the engrossing melancholy of this Blackwood band.
Opening with new single Orwellian was a bold move, but it was followed immediately by Motorcycle Emptiness: as ever, a sheer delight. In his 1999 biography of the Manics, Simon Price described the track as “six minutes long, but you want it to go on forever,” and we all really did. Next up, a surprise addition of Let Robeson Sing – the Manics have so many great songs spread across their 14 albums that they can play more than just the ‘classics, new tracks and deep cuts’ formula most bands adhere to live. This, one of their numerous demi-classics, sounds as lush and poignant as ever.
Four tracks from the forthcoming album The Ultra Vivid Lament made an appearance, all equally exquisite. Nicky Wire once said “we make either glam or post-punk albums,” and, in terms of the Manics’ recent career, here they lean a little more towards the glam melancholy of Postcards Of A Young Man than the postpunk weirdness of late-career highlight Futurology. The Secret He Had Missed, featuring guest vocals by Cat Southall, was especially great.
The second half of the set featured the ever-powerful If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next and the sublime Your Love Alone Is Not Enough. Hearing Nicky Wire’s flat backing vocals on the latter is always strangely endearing, and the bassist was as charismatic as ever, telling a great story about coming to St David’s Hall as a youth to watch his hero Jocky Wilson in the darts. The punchline got a big laugh, and made a very funny comparison to James’ sincere story about seeing Echo & The Bunnymen here two years ago. This was a neat lead-in to the Manics’ penultimate track – a vibrant and anthemic cover of that band’s Bring On The Dancing Horses.
Closing with A Design To Life was a move everyone in the audience saw from a mile off. But to hear its unbreakable brilliance once again, in the setting it deserves, was simply wonderful. Though tailored for a radio session, 12 songs felt a little too short, the ending abrupt. However, given the alienation, boredom and despair caused by the pandemic era, a dozen resplendent live tracks from the Manic Street Preachers felt like the first breath after a coma.
This gig will be available on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds from Sat 11 Sept. Special highlights shows will be on BBC Radio 2 on Sat 11 Sept (8-10pm) and Sun 12 Sept (7-9pm)
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, Thurs 12 Aug
words TOM MORGAN photos LOFTUS
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