Despite the blazer-jeans-combo, middle-class, dad-rock vibe that now seems to follow the South Wales legendary rock outfit Manic Street Preachers as they enter their 31st year, their music has always been determinedly leftist and critical of the status quo, even in their more musically middle-of-the-road hits. And as they geared up to headline the second night of Bristol Sounds, their politically-charged songs seemed to resonate more than usual.

as they geared up to headline the second night of Bristol Sounds, their politically-charged songs seemed to resonate more than usual

From the obvious increased police presence and bag checks – a sad reminder of the heinous attack on Manchester Arena exactly a month ago to the day – to the unsettled political climate following the last election, there was certainly a feeling of anticipation for some catharsis in the crowds as the Lloyds Amphitheatre slowly filled as they prepared for the return of one of the UK’s most loved rock bands.

Nitelife – Manic Street Preachers - Bristol Sounds Review - photo by Paul Box

The support acts – favourites of Manics – in the form of sultry Anchoress and Brighton-based British Sea Power, warmed up the growing crowds on a cool night on the Harbourside. The latter, known for their unusual gig venues and stage antics, seemed right at home, filling the seagull-filled sky with their lush, Joy Division-inspired sounds and poppy riffs, even taking a moment to give a shoutout to Big Jeff, whose blonde mane could be seen happily bobbing at the front of the throng.

the lads bounded out like teenagers with what turned out to be nine months of pent up performance energy, blasting straight into a note-perfect rendition of Motorcycle Emptiness

But there was no doubt that the audience was waiting for the main attraction. With no faffing (as they say over the Severn), the lads bounded out like teenagers with what turned out to be nine months of pent up performance energy, blasting straight into a note-perfect rendition of Motorcycle Emptiness, the heartfelt hit from their 1992 debut album Generation Terrorists, that has not lost any of its relevance today.

Nitelife – Manic Street Preachers - Bristol Sounds Review - photo by Paul Box

It’s easy to forget how far the Manics have come from the early Richey Edwards-penned punk, to the bigger more commercialised hits following the guitarist’s tragic, mysterious disappearance. But, seasoned stadium-fillers, they know their audience is split between lovers of their earlier and later music, so they play fair and ping-pong rapidly between the two for the following hour and a half, causing the new sound aficionados to perk up and shout along to Everything Must Go and boppy favourite You Stole the Sun From My Heart as the night draws in.

they know their audience is split between lovers of their earlier and later music, so they play fair and ping-pong rapidly between the two for the following hour and a half

Charmingly cussing, front man James Dean Bradfield stepped up to jostle with the crowd over the border rivalry (to the jesting boos, he retorted: ‘This is music not f**king sport!’). He also made sure to namecheck the Bristol bases at which they played their first gigs (‘to the five people that came to our gig in the Bierkeller’), even mentioning the ‘soon to be renamed Colston Hall’ (big cheer) where they saw their own first ever gig, Echo and the Bunnymen, reminding us of the city’s history as the musical hub of the M4 corridor.

Nitelife – Manic Street Preachers - Bristol Sounds Review - photo by Paul Box

When the band launched into Your Love Alone Is Not Enough, Bradfield reminded us that, though he may be older, his voice is as strong and impressive in its range as ever, superbly performing the part formerly sung by The Cardigans’ vocalist Nina Persson with seemingly little effort. In fact, the whole band were tight and full of vibrant energy, showing their pedigree as they powered through more recent numbers such as Futurology single Walk Me to the Bridge, to old-school shouter, Kevin Carter with equal slickness, despite Bradfield’s warning that he might be a bit fuzzy on the lyrics.

Bradfield couldn’t help but make a reference to the current state of unrest, introducing their earlier catalogue from a time ‘when everything was all so f**king happy and uncomplicated’

Thanking the crowd for making their return to the stage ‘so easy’, it was hard to tell who was having more fun. Nevertheless, Bradfield couldn’t help but make a reference to the current state of unrest, introducing their earlier catalogue from a time ‘when everything was all so f**king happy and uncomplicated’, setting up the grim future warning song If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.

Nitelife – Manic Street Preachers - Bristol Sounds Review - photo by Paul Box

Continuing the protest theme, Bradfield slowed the tempo for a Billy Bragg-style solo acoustic break, with 30 Year War (‘I ask you again, what is to be done?’) with moving strains of a solo trumpet hailing out over the hushed audience, followed by Ocean Spray, which he dedicated to Bristol legends, Massive Attack.

Other stand out moments were the ‘right back to our roots’ rendition of You Love Us and their self-proclaimed ‘wedding-reception song’ Show Me the Wonder, which turned the mass of Bristolians into a very Welsh, arms-around-the-shoulders, swaying scrum (even making this steely-hearted expat mist up with hiraeth.)

If there were any disappointments, they were few

If there were any disappointments, they were few. At one point, fans of punkier record Gold Against the Soul groaned in disappointment as Bradfield teased with the intro to Sleepflower before stopping with a laugh, as drummer Sean Moore refused to co-operate.

Also sadly lacking were any tracks from dark and bitter The Holy Bible. And though their lyrics still rant and rage against the system, their wearing-balaclavas-on-Top-of-the-Pops days are clearly far behind them. Finishing right on curfew (as rock kings Foo Fighters were to flagrantly ignore on Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage a day later), Bradfield said apologetically: ‘Your council might be great, but I don’t think we can get away with that!’

Nitelife – Manic Street Preachers - Bristol Sounds Review - photo by Paul Box

You cannot criticise the Manics for knowing what their audience wants, saving the biggest belter for last and encouraging the crowd to make the most of the chance to sing along, even handing the second verse over to them. A thousand-strong chorus of the familiar refrain, ‘A de-sign fo-or life’, punctuated by rhythmic clapping and fists punching the air, became a sort of chant of solidarity for the young and old, grim as its underlying tone may be.

you could just about hear Bradfield thank the crowd for the singing and telling us all to, ‘get pissed, make love, be strong’ which, in this climate, I think is the best advice we’ve had all year

The band left the stage to an uproar of cheers and screams, but you could just about hear Bradfield thank the crowd for the singing and telling us all to, ‘get pissed, make love, be strong’ which, in this climate, I think is the best advice we’ve had all year.

Words by Sophie Jones
Photos by Paul Box

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