Manchester Evening News Arena

OK, the [B]Manics[/B] may have lost some of their bite, but they gained a whole lotta soul in return...

Manchester Evening News Arena

The walking lust trombone who comes on in a Noddy hat and a greatcoat just happens to be the best rock diva in Britain, and this arena is clearly way too small for a voice this huge. Topping off a magnificent year when the world finally tuned into their rabble-rousing racket, [a]Catatonia[/a] come across like cats who really got the cream.



All the monster crowd-pleasers are here, sounding a trifle clompy in these cattle-shed environs but still brimming with passion. There are new numbers, too: a glittery lullaby waltz full of magic and melancholy, plus a twinkle-toed jig called 'She's A Millionaire' which extends all those obvious Bjvouml;rk comparisons to its warped instrumentation. Cerys even plays a recorder. Catatonia aren't dumbing down for the big league, they're taking it on their own terms.



They finish with 'International Velvet', full-pelt punkoid reggae propelled by enough lung power to overload all the New Year breathalysers from here to Cardiff. It's ironic that both [a]Catatonia[/a] and the Manics are sometimes sniffily condemned for their growing populism when this kind of venue is where they make the most sense - hell, the only sense.



The Manics are welcomed like homecoming heroes, instantly dashing fears that their fires have been doused. Beneath five giant screens beaming out hauntingly empty images of Eden-like vistas, windswept beaches and lapping waves, the trio coast into the warm tidal slipstream of 'The Everlasting', probably their best song yet. Despite being scorned for its new-found 'maturity', this music has nothing to do with leisurewear and everything to do with loss, beauty and truth.



There is much more give in these tunes nowadays, a yielding tenderness where once there was just tensile tautness. Despite their explosive reputation, early Manics shows were painfully clenched affairs, with James straining to bellow way beyond his range. Now he carries most of the tunes with an earthy, lived-in croak, elevating expression over aggression. Once it was all surface, no feeling. Now it's the opposite.



The blamming grandeur of the 'Everything Must Go' tour was amazing, sure, but now the Manics seem to be reaching for something more nuanced and elegiac. Thus 'Ready For Drowning' is a stately singalong shanty, 'Tsunami' a shimmering sunburst. For an arena set, the warm simplicity of the arrangements is striking, with additional keyboards softening and humanising even the starkest archive numbers.



This is especially true of 'Motown Junk' and 'You Love Us', formerly brittle sneers now evolved into dynamic flesh-and-blood anthems. During the latter, housewife superstar Nicky Wire ditches his bass altogether and keeps time with a skipping rope. Rum fellow. Then there is the grand spectacle of 'Motorcycle Emptiness', possibly the greatest alienation hymn ever written, unifying 10,000 people in collective rapture. Irony so rich you can smell it.



Admittedly this leisurely, low-gear mood doesn't always serve the music well, lending a lethargic plod to 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' and 'My Little Empire'. But James' traditional acoustic solo spot shows confidence and control, carrying half of Manchester with him as he segues wittily from 'Black Dog On My Shoulder' to George Michael's 'Last Christmas'. Yes, really.



So, Wham! covers is it now? OK, the Manics may have lost some of their bite, but they gained a whole lotta soul in return. So if we really need arena-sized bands, let's have one who strafe us with Orwell and Marx quotes while ultra-straight scally blokes hug each other with tearful joy to the towering grand finale of 'A Design For Life'. The Manics are loosening up, spreading their wings, colonising the mainstream, finally making a difference. If a few sharp edges have been smoothed out on the journey, the sacrifice was worth it. Undefeated, everlasting.

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