Manic Street Preachers, The Answering Machine

Michael James Hall 28/05/2009

With an unforeseeable Album-Of -The-Year-So-Far credit already to their name, who can expect 2009 to get any better for the Blackwood comeback kids?

A tour of intimate venues (clearly booked well before the critical acclaim and extremely healthy sales of 'Journal For Plague Lovers' were even a glimmer in their booking agents eyes) could prove disastrous - a major letdown in comparison with the intensity and soaring brilliance of the freshly released album and, worse still, all played out in front of their hardcore fanbase.

Their last couple of tours have, to these eyes, proven a little lacking in the fire and drive that once marked them among the country's finest live bands, so despite the excitement generated by the immaculate 'Journal', this was a show to be approached with at least a hint of trepidation.

The first half of the evening is dedicated to the playing of their aforementioned new album in its entirety, in sequence. Considering it has only been out for a week and a half this is a bold move indeed, and one you wonder how many other bands of their stature would even attempt.

As the psychotic majesty of 'Peeled Apples' tears through the sound system we are offered the glimpse of a revelation: They sound absolutely, unquestioningly brilliant - a vicious, precise attack of sound with James Dean Bradfield's vocals lacerating sharply through the mix.

Despite minor technical flaws and Bradfield's self-confessed problems with actually being able to deliver Richey Edwards' more tongue-twisting lyrics, this portion of the set is an utter triumph;

The crowd know all the words; the band play their parts with grace and style; the songs shine through, clear as frozen footprints, illuminating an already great album and giving it another dimension in a live setting.

Throughout, the band remain jovial, Bradfield joking about their lack of professionalism, Nicky Wire (who is stock still and occasionally grimacing with pain here tonight due to a prolapsed disc in his back) comparing his haircut to that of Rula Lenska.

It's a sweet relief that they choose to approach the performance in this way. Considering the nature of their history and the content of 'Journal' this could all too easily become a sentimental bleak-fest, but it's a pitfall they nimbly dodge throughout.

Emotional highlights must be considered Bradfields' stunning solo acoustic rendition of 'Facing Page:Top Left' and the closing 'William's Last Words', so carefully and tenderly delivered by Wire to a crowd pleased to mouth along with each imperfectly pitched utterance.

These moments, along with foundation-trembling takes on 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time' and the electro-thuggery of 'Marlon JD' leave the crowd entering the interval wondering if the night could possibly get any better.

Returning to the stage with their backing band, the first half having been played by the trio alone with the occasional help of a string quartet, they tear out the era-defining 'Motorcycle Emptiness'. The Manics are aflame. Every word is screamed from the back to the front of the crowd, Bradfield occasionally giving the fans the chance to take over his role as lead vocalist, Wire grinning through the pain as the mutual adoration between band and fans flows.

They absolutely blaze through a selection of favourites seemingly picked at random: Definitive crowd pleasers like 'You Love Us' and 'Motown Junk' bump up against less obvious choices such as 'Tsunami' and, brilliantly unexpectedly, 'No Surface / All Feeling', each sounding fresher than the last, each sounding better than it has in years.

As Bradfield screams his one word intro - 'FASTER!' - to the song of the same name, all bets are off. The place erupts in a tumult of bodies, teens colliding with thirty-somethings, new fans holding onto the old school, all united in those incredible, iconic lyrics and that furious, apocalyptic guitar line. It's a moment to remember and one to cherish - particularly considering their recent ill-treatment of what could be considered their finest moment (you may recall a woeful acoustic version of this on their Greatest Hits tour - try not to).

As the set surges to a close via 'Australia', 'You Stole The Sun From My Heart' (possibly their best ever live version of this particular song) and 'Everything Must Go' we are left, inevitably with both their crowning musical achievement and the totem of their inevitable decline 'A Design For Life'. It's rousing. It's life-affirming. It's absolutely celebratory in a way only absolute nihilism can be.

They have played with rousing heart, dignity, good humour and absolute passion throughout, each song a diamond of its own cut. Hilariously, considering their back catalogue, they probably could have continued for another entire set without offering a single duff tune. How many bands can we say that about?

As the lights go up to humble, heartfelt thanks from the band (including a thank you on behalf of Richey) we are left with the coda of one of the rarely played but greatly cherished high points of the evening 'Little Baby Nothing':

'Rock and Roll is our epiphany - Culture, Alienation, Boredom and Despair'.

Tonight reminds you why all of those things are the things we hold close. Tonight reminds you of how even when mighty bands falter they can, very rarely but they can, stand back at their full height once more and tower over the detritus of culture below them.

Tonight Manic Street Preachers are, once again, the greatest band in Britain. How long it will last is irrelevant - the Manics have always been about the moment - but along with that first surge of glam-punk in the years of 'Generation Terrorists', the harsh introspection and sloganeering suicide of 'Holy Bible' and the sleek, powerful pop group of 'Everything Must Go' we are now offered another identity, equal to any of the above, for this most resilient of bands:

The knowing, humorous, iconic survivors who knew when they had taken a wrong turn and somehow, unlike any of their contemporaries, made an absolute recovery.

These are the Manic Street Preachers of the 'Journal For Plague Lovers' era and you should be proud to call yourself a fan.

Pictures by Dan Thomas.