The 21st Century Manic Street Preachers are very different to the band who, led by Nicky Wire and his then partner in crime Richey Edwards, became the poster boys of the post-punk, pre-Britpop scene. Over the last few years the only reminder of those heady days of glitter, Mailer and eyeliner has been the intermittent smattering of leopard print and the feathers shed from boas at their live shows.
Tonight starts off much the same – Welsh flags can be spotted throughout the crowd, there’s the obligatory gaggle of girls in tiaras crushed to the barrier in front of the stage and the band’s horned biographer Simon Price can be spotted tapping his foot like a proud headmaster.
It’s the second of two gigs rearranged from the tail end of their October tour, when singer James Dean Bradfield fell ill. They’ve managed to cobble the show together for one last hurrah, including the tour’s support band British Sea Power. With an audience ripe for the picking it could’ve been a chance to snare some new fans, but they fail to make the most of their half hour set and the only songs that make any resonance with the already full Brixton Academy are singles Waving Flags and No Lucifer.
A camp, apocalyptic set greets us ahead of the Manics’ arrival on stage. Red velvet curtains are draped across the back, flashing drop lights flicker on and off and, bizarrely, glittery mannequins – including a fairy-lit dog – are positioned around the stage to keep the band company. The opening track comes as a surprise; whereas they’d usually stick to a recent single, this time they blast out their 1992 mission statement, one of Generation Terrorists’ bolshiest tracks, Slash And Burn, before leaping straight into Motorcycle Emptiness.
The first of their new songs comes courtsey of (It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love (“Unfortunately they used this over the end of when Australia beat Wales at rugby. Fuck me,” sighs a dismayed Bradfield.) It’s one of a handful of tracks from their 10th album, Postcards From A Young Man, which was released last September. The only others to get a look in are the record’s title track and Some Kind Of Nothingness, both of which are vamped up with pummelling drums which would sound at home alongside the heavier portion of their back catalogue, which the band seem to be favouring tonight. This is unusual in itself; they often give the impression that, after nigh on 20 years of performing the same songs, they relish the chance to play new material and, being the Manics, they can do no wrong in the eyes of their fans, so it’s an opportunity granted. But tonight they seem content to delve into their past and gloss over some of their more forgettable moments of the last decade. In fact, Journal For Plague Lovers’ Me And Stephen Hawking and Send Away The Tigers’ Your Love Alone are the soul representatives of the four albums they released between 1998 and 2010.
Roses In The Hospital (“From Gold Against The Soul, an under-rated soft rock classic or a difficult second album, depending on who you talk to,” muses Bradfield), still commands the venomous chant of “We don’t need your fucking love” from the crowd – which doesn’t go unnoticed by Wire: “We’re the only band in the world whose fans tell us to fuck off…and we love it.”
He introduces My Little Empire by telling us it’s his favourite lyric he’s ever written. A text book You Love Us sees Wire matching the audience’s enthusiasm by scissor-kicking his way around the stage, before a rare outing for Suicide Is Painless. “I remember Damon Albarn saying he was glad we had a hit with this because it’d be an albatross around our neck, nice man that he is,” reveals Bradfield. Enola/Alone is another song dusted down for the night before the often played but still spine tingling Motown Junk (“I don’t know how many times we’ve played here but every time we’ve played this song,” says Wire, “And it still gives me goosebumps when my guitar hero, my best friend, plays the opening notes.”)
After the boring but necessary If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next, Bradfield stays on stage alone to play an acoustic version of Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky and an infinitely more digestible version of You Stole The Sun From My Heart. It gives Wire time for a costume change, and he returns to the stage dressed in a naval hat and military jacket in time for Faster and La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh). He stalks the stage, pointing his bass like a weapon; his equivalent of wagging his tail. He’s enjoying himself, and so are the audience.
They might not be making the same waves they did in their infancy, but they’ve aged with grace and, as Postcards From A Young Man proves, are still capable of crafting songs that mirror the urgency and vitality of their early days. The show wraps up with A Design For Life, before which Bradfield gushes: “You don’t know how much it means every time you come back,” a sentiment echoed throughout the room.