Many times the Manic Street Preachers have been accused of purveying dad-rock, being behind the curve, or losing their relevance, yet the band has grown from album to album, consistently delivering, and wildly adored by their rabid fans.
Yet at Brixton Academy on Friday night, it finally felt like something had changed. Sure, James Dean Bradfield has been wearing suits for years, while Nicky Wire still looks dashingly flamboyant – on the night in question pulling off a white leather jeans and jacket combo only a rockstar could ever hope to get away with – but after touring two best-of albums, it finally felt like a nostalgia gig.
The started with a bang, rocketing out and flailing straight into Motorcycle Emptiness, Bradfield whipping dervish like round the stage while he curled out chords written by a Slash wannabe two decades ago, and the crowd loved it. They lapped up the lot, really, but more as spectators and participants: reflected by the reliance on backing videos for many of the songs, and the noticeable absence of feathers, furs and lipsticks among the sea of eager faces.
Tracks such as No Surface All Feeling, You Stole The Sun From My Heart, and Enola Alone still carried the same emotional punch, with Rewind The Film proving that the newer offerings could stand happily alongside the older favourites (even if Bradfield quipped that he would never match Richard Hawley’s lower register), and it was these more reflective songs that largely marked the first half of the set, neatly enveloping new song Europa Geht Durch Mich.
The screens behind the band played an evocative counter point, beautifully illustrating Spanish Civil War homily If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, and This Sullen Welsh Heart: a melancholic highlight of the show, with Bradfield accompanying himself on a solo acoustic guitar, a small, defiant valley boy dominated by a succession of washed-out, clapped-out Welsh dioramas.
That moment, along with acoustic versions of This Is Yesterday and From Despair To Where, marked a turning point in the concert: a quick outfit change for Nicky and the group were ready to attack, heading for the older territory where they knew the fan favourites were kept.
However, despite all the verve, the vigour and the obvious love the Manics had for their older, punkier stuff, which was reflected back from the crowd, it was cloyed with a faint museum air, a breath of nostalgia not felt in the first half of the set.
Wire mocked the idea of a 45 year old Welsh bloke wearing such clothes, but no feather boas festooned his mic-stand, and he stayed resolutely in male clothing throughout.
There was one thing obviously missing, finally acknowledged in the intro to Motown Junk, when Bradfield finally let slip a reference to Richie Edwards, whose face had been splashed across the big screen for the past 15 minutes. Gone but not forgotten, his songs still bore the same power, but for once he seemed needed to bring their full power to the fore.
Still, the band played on, a tribute to their makeup-smeared lost brother, throbbing raucously from The Masses Against The Classes (sans Camusian epilogue) through new song Let’s Go To War (a stomping anthm introduced by Wire with “Please excuse me if I fuck it up. This is a nice marching song,” to Motown Junk and the rabble-rousing You Love Us.
The band finished with a Design For Life – perhaps their seminal song, perhaps prophetic, still powerful, with it’s propagandist-polemical backdrop of quotations and fragments – before disappearing, encoreless, leaving behind them static and a resoundlingly empty stage. Albeit a stage that for all its sound and fury had been curiously lacking all evening.