Two thrilling sets show that, 18 years on, the Welsh boys are still as vital as ever. Roundhouse, London, Thursday, May 28
A 20ft-high face gazes out on to the crowd. Beneath Jenny Saville’s artwork, three Manic Street Preachers stab through ‘Peeled Apples’, the opening to their ninth album ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, which they’re playing in full for the next three nights. It’s as if we’re being constantly reminded, via a massive staring competition, quite how important this record and these shows are.
That ‘Journal…’ is almost a masterpiece has already passed into something approaching fact. That James, Sean and Nicky – the crowd refer to them warmly by their first names as if old friends – render it live as a trio (eschewing the later second set’s addition of a guitarist and keyboardist, but with the addition of a string quartet for a couple of songs) shows just how confident they are in it. And it’s thrilling to behold. ‘Me And Stephen Hawking’ and ‘Marlon JD’ seethe with the fury of a band of angry 18-year-olds, not a band who’ve been around for 18 years. ‘This Joke Sport Severed’ is buoyed and barbed by strings; ‘Pretension/Repulsion’ foments like a storm at sea; ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’, despite a false start, crashes like a punk-rock tidal wave.
It’s not a case of them ‘pulling off’ the new album; ‘Journal…’ sounds astonishingly powerful live, even with Nicky practically rooted to the spot because of back problems. We do get James spinning around during ‘She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach’, though, and playing ‘Facing Page: Top Left’ alone with an acoustic, which is about as gorgeous as it gets on a Thursday night in north London.
After a breather comes the second set – billed as ‘hits’. ‘Classics’ would be more apposite: ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, ‘Faster’, ‘No Surface All Feeling’, ‘Little Baby Nothing’, an ecstatic ‘You Love Us’ and a ‘Motown Junk’ so fresh it’s hard to believe it’s older than Miley Cyrus. ‘Everything Must Go’ and ‘A Design For Life’, too, are bellowed back with such force that whichever political party suggests one of them should become the national anthem will be a shoo-in come the next election. The band look delirious, the crowd scream their approval long after the lights go up, even though they all know there will be no encore.
The artwork was removed after the first set. But the Manics didn’t blink.