Manic Street Preachers – Ulster Hall, Belfast, 21st September 2013

Great Scott!
Great Scott!

I’m getting old; That’s the message of the downbeat new Manics album Rewind The Film and it’s also the message of the concert, and of this review. The band is at that point in their careers, and their lives, where regrets are overpowering ambitions, and the past is glorious when compared with the tedium of the present and the futility of the future. However, that has never been a reason to stop great artists from producing some of their greatest work – Rewind The Film may not be the band’s best work, but it is certainly not a dip in form from their recent well-received albums. The music is deliberately quiet, not as hugely produced as Postcards or as bombastic as Journal so I was intrigued by how these new tracks would work on stage, played to raucous fans by a band known for their high kicking, high energy performances. Would the crowd react well? Would those songs be used as an excuse for a toilet break? Read on for the startling conclusion!

It had been a few years since I had last seen the Manics, after their excellent show at The Ulster Hall for the Journal tour and their Tennant’s Vital show (which I watched for free from my bedroom window). Since then I’ve had 2 children, moved out of the city, and entered my 30s, kicking and screaming. Getting old. Looking back. It’s difficult for me getting to concerts, or out of the house these days, what with looking for babysitters, thinking about the hour-long drive there and back, parking, justifying forking out the money when it could be spent on the kids etc, being arsed to actually get up and do something rather than living to fall asleep. You know what I mean.

I made it to the city around 6pm, and met a few friends from school for drinks beforehand. Naturally, talk turned to school, who we had seen recently. I learned another guy from my year had killed himself. He wasn’t the first. I didn’t know him well, but the old useless cliché of ‘he didn’t seem the type’ was straining to come from my lips. I was the type. I met an old friend from work. I met my best mate from Primary School (for those who don’t understand, the school we attend from age 5 – 11 roughly).  As I looked around at the crowd I saw a majority of older faces, older at least than me. I’d never seen this before at a Manics gig, or at least I’d never noticed. I did notice a lack of feather-boad, mascara-smeared, slashed and burned Richey/Nicky devotees. Maybe they were at Dublin.

As idiot detractors are fond of pointing out, The Manics are now a Radio 2 band. I’m sure they have their Radio 1 moments too (I haven’t listened since Mark and Lard left) but that may point towards a new group of fans; previously, you had a rough split between the Richey era diehard fans, the Topshop wearing crowd who only know a handful of the singles, and the people like me who love everything. Now we have a new subset of older fans who enjoy… I don’t know really – any ideas? They were swaying their arms during A Design For Life, and looked bewildered during Revol. I wonder if that crowd is listening to the lyrics as well as the music.

Apologies to Cate Le Bon (no relation to Simon…) but I decided to stay outside the main hall near the booze and merchandise area chatting with friends. We could hear you though. I didn’t know anything about you before the album was announced, but you sounded nicely tormented at the show. I headed for my seat once Cate left the stage (yes, I know, sitting at a Manics gig is a fairly serious crime, but with driving to the show I had my coat, wallet, keys and other assorted crap on my person and I didn’t want to be standing in a feverish crowd for a few hours, melting. So I withdrew, retreated from my friends, and was assimilated into a crowd of older people to the right of James, and waited for the first song to hit.

This tour has seen the band walking out to new instrumental track Manorbier. The band have been dabbling with instrumentals for quite a few years now, but I haven’t heard one I would rate highly yet. Horse Under Starlight is probably my favourite, and it was recorded many years back. Still, it’s a nice idea to come out to your own music, but I’m still waiting for someone to use music from the Conan The Barbarian soundtrack. Still, the intro merged nicely with the first song, the eternal Motorcycle Emptiness. A fan favourite, even for fans who have never heard it (whatever that means) it’s always well received live, and makes for a great first song. Even better, it was followed up with one of my personal favourites (and my favourite from TIMTTMY) Ready For Drowning. The most perfectly circular song ever written, I’ve never understood why more fans don’t hold it in high regard. TIMTTMY contains Nicky’s best lyrics, and some of the most overtly emotional playing from James, and that cascading pre-chorus riff if like the walls of a decade of pain crumbling away. It’s another track well suited to the live arena.

After a strong one-two intro, the band powered into a duo of pop anthems with Your Love Alone Is Not Enough and new single Show Me The Wonder. Both received an encouraging reception from the crowd, and it was wonderful to see the band and audience relishing the back and forth lyrical turns. Anthem For A Lost Cause was up next, a song which critics had been unfairly trying to compare to A Design For Life before the latest album was released. This one did quiet the audience down quite a bit, not surprising as the album had only been out a week and only the most hardcore of fans would have had time to get to know it with any level of intimacy. The band once again picked things up with a pair of hits, with the string bombast of (It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love and the ever-popular You Stole The Sun From My Heart. I always moan about the latter when I see the band live, as they always seem to play it. Naturally it’s a crowd-pleaser, with a chorus begging to be screamed to a sigh, but there are a few singles I’d dearly love to see life before the band (or me) call it a day (Life Becoming A Landslide at the top of the list). However, I’m always first to leap about like a broken Ian Curtis when it’s played, moaning or not.

The band slowed things down once more with a pair of new tracks which feature guest vocal talents on the record. Cate Le Bon joined Nicky live on stage for a tender 4 Lonely Roads while James tried out some fantastic deeper vocals with Rewind The Film. I did notice a large number of people making their way out for a booze/fag/piss break at this point. By recent Manics standards this is a long song, and depending on my mood it either overstays its welcome, or just about manages to not drag. I do love the melodies, and I do love that twiddling guitar part, but it feels like there is a little too much repetition in there, or some seconds which could be cut. Having said that, it was good fun to see James, one of the most underrated vocalists there has ever been (and one who manages to remain unique in rock music) doing things a bit differently here.
You Love Us was up next, and built the crowd into a frenzy as always – even the statuesque, close to throwing herself off the balcony, goth beside me cracked a smile in the opening chords. I think. If You Tolerate This… followed and ensured the crowd had a chance to stretch their vocal cords a little. This led to the obligatory James solo set, starting with my favourite song from the new album This Sullen Welsh Heart a song which belongs in a Shane Meadows film, or at least the Welsh equivalent. If there’s one song that has been haunting my wife over the recent weeks it’s ‘I don’t want my children to grow up like me’, as I sing it whilst making lunch, wandering from room to room, moaning about how much Great British Bake-Off she has on the free-view, blocking me from recording Film 4. It would have only been a stronger moment had more of the crowd known the song, not the case for Can’t Take My Eyes Off You which James played next as a bonus for messing up a lyric. Rounding up this set was The Everlasting, a much derided song by certain sections of fans but one which I’ve always adored thanks to the swarming strings and a tugging, stretching guitar solo. The whole thing is so desperately sad and true.
Another personal favourite was up next, arguably their best album opener Elvis Impersonator. The sudden change from acoustic to LOUD is a classic moment in the band’s history, and played here it signalled the end of the acoustic set and the move into the final series of hits. Revol was the only entry from The Holy Bible played all night which likely will have annoyed some, but most of those songs would not have fit well with the mood of the night, or the tour. Tsunami continued the crowd-pleasing anthems and Kevin Carter threatened to cause irreparable damage to the balcony area due to copious pogoing. 30 Year War got a fairly strong response, a call to action which hopefully some of the crowd took out of the venue and home, hopefully a few were still asking themselves ‘what is to be done’ the next day.
Finally, the band gave their triumphant send-off with a guitar-hero intro to Motown Junk, and a typically stonking Design For Life which had the drunks in full, awful voice outside the venue as they slouched towards their next target. Apparently some in the crowd were shouting for an encore. Youngsters, eh?
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