Review | Manic Street Preachers at Portsmouth Guildhall: 'We wouldn’t have them any other way'

Manic Street Preachers have long been a Trojan horse for smuggling weighty themes into pop culture.

By Chris Broom
Saturday, 9th October 2021, 11:13 am
Manic Street Preachers at Portsmouth Guildhall, October 8, 2021. Picture by Paul Windsor
Manic Street Preachers at Portsmouth Guildhall, October 8, 2021. Picture by Paul Windsor

How many other rock bands could take a song inspired by the Spanish Civil war and warning against apathy in the face of fascism to the top of the single charts?

And yet, If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next receives one of the biggest cheers of the night here.

The Manics were recently at Victorious Festival as late additions to the bill, so it’s a rare treat to have them back in town again so soon.

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James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers at Portsmouth Guildhall, October 8, 2021, by Paul Windsor

This is a night all about anthems, and tracks from new album The Ultra Vivid Lament slot in nicely.

Opener Motorcycle Emptiness instantly sets the bar high, and it dovetails nicely with recent single Orwellian.

Fellow Lament single The Secret He Had Missed soon follows, and judging from the response to it, is already a fan favourite.

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Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers at Portsmouth Guildhall, October 8, 2021

Guns N’Roses were frequently cited by the band in their early days as an influence – the Manics used to regularly cover their It’s So Easy.

Now we get their faithful cover of Sweet Child O’ Mine, which was also wheeled out at Victorious. If nothing else it gives Bradfield a chance to prove he could comfortably go toe-to-toe with Slash. It’s a crowd-pleasing and thrilling detour.

With 14 albums under their belts, trying to pick a 20-song setlist that would satisfy all aspects of their fanbase would be a fool’s task.

It does mean though that large chunks of the back catalogue are absent – there’s nothing from the infamously testing, but brilliant, The Holy Bible, for example.

James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers at Portsmouth Guildhall, October 8, 2021

There are, however, a couple of pleasing curveballs.

Frontman James Dean Bradfield plays a beautiful solo acoustic version of ’93 single La Tristesse Durera which has shades of Spanish guitar to its finger-picked passages. Challenging the audience to out-sing him, they accept with aplomb.

And one of their earliest songs, Spectators of Suicide is reinstated for the first time in a long time. Played back-to-back with Slash’n’Burn, also from their debut Generation Terrorists, is a nostalgic rush for old-school fans. It also gives bassist Nicky Wire the chance to remind the audience how they played it at Portsmouth Polytechnic back in 1991, all clad in ‘skinny white jeans’.

The ghost of absent rhythm guitarist, co-lyricist and most importantly, friend, Richey James is often felt (he went missing in 1995). In his introduction to Lament’s opener Still Snowing in Sapporo, Wire tells how it was inspired by finding photos and journals from their 1993 Japanese tour, when it was ‘still the four of us against the world’.

Its opening section, backed by an electronic ambient passage on record, is sung here a capella by Bradfield, and it’s an affecting moment.

Bradfield frequently thanks the audience, seeming genuinely grateful for the ongoing support ‘which we never take for granted.’

Penultimate song, You Love Us – originally a sarcastic riposte to their critics and a statement of intent: “Our voices are for real…” – has long since been transformed to a mutual love-in between band and audience.

They finish with – what else? – A Design For Life, their first release after Richey’s disappearance from back in 1996.

Its theme of working class solidarity may be overshadowed by the chance for audiences to bellow: ‘We only want to get drunk’ in the chorus, but then that’s the dichotomy at the heart of the Manics, and what makes them like so few others – anthemic songs that also pack a philosophical and intellectual punch if you care to hear it.

And we wouldn’t have them any other way.

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