“There was a lot of leopard print on the streets of York that night,” muses Nicky Wire. “Mostly on us – not many people came.” In 2021, though there’s still an air of Covid caution in the crowd rather than sweaty moshpit abandon, there’s a large and enthusiastic audience to welcome them back.
Of course there’s more grey hair than leopard print about the fanbase these days, but even in their youthful sloganeering glam punk days, the Manics’ music tapped a poetic vein of nostalgia and sadness - which has proved to be their secret weapon for ageing gracefully. Their latest album The Ultra Vivid Lament saw them fully lean into this and in the process hit upon their strongest set of songs in years and their first number one album this century. It forms the backbone of a well-chosen set that’s both energetic and elegiac, joining the dots across their 30-year catalogue.
From the opening riff of Motorcycle Emptiness, James Dean Bradfield is rock’s hardest-working frontman, doubling up as vocal powerhouse and lead guitar hero, while the gangling Wire throws shapes in front of his Welsh flag-draped bass amps.
The new Still Snowing In Saporro, looking back on their early days, becomes a companion piece to 90s anthem Everything Must Go, their raw response to the loss of guitarist Richey Edwards. Deep dives include an acoustic take on From Despair To Where and a reinvention of Spectators Of Suicide from their debut album.
If You Tolerate This… is a highlight, as is Your Love Alone Is Not Enough – though like The Secret He Had Missed it feels the absence of the female vocals from the record.
But of course the Manics’ other secret weapon is a shameless love of an air-punching chorus and a hard rock riff – Bradfield relishes soloing his way through a cover of Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’Mine. It’s a change of gear that revs the band up for their own riff-heavy rocker Slash ‘N’ Burn and then the final triumphant blast through You Love Us and the peerless A Design For Life.