Theories as to why the Manic Street Preachers never made it big in North America:
– Self-sabotage: the band released the far-too-brash “You Love Us” as their first NA single instead of stronger material; Richey Edwards’ presumed suicide happened just before a significant NA tour and an American release of The Holy Bible; the band’s focus on their European fanbase post-This is My Truth…
– Attitude: Americans don’t like to be told what to think. The Manics’ entire motif for their first three records was telling listeners what to think (or yelling at them for what they DID think).
– Too Eurocentric: very few 1990s British bands actually made it big in North America, and those that did so did it with a universal anthem (“Song 2,” “Wonderwall”). The Manics’ big UK singles were aggressively British, in contrast; they were not unlike Pulp in this regard. Only “If You Tolerate This…” came close to a breakthrough, but even it was quite obtuse and problematic for mass programming.
Maybe it was some of these reasons; maybe it was none of them. Whatever the case, the Manics long-overdue return to North America after 10 years touring the rest of the world provided an interesting scenario: a stadium band well-versed in playing to the back of tens of thousands playing to a few hundred die-hard believers.
The band clearly knew they had some catching up to do.
Wasting no time, they opened with one of their two undeniably great anthems: “Motorcycle Emptiness,” played with all the vitriol at its core. From there, what followed was something of a minor-rewrite of the band’s history: a “greatest hits” that traded some blockbusters for some spectacular fan-favourites and – for better or worse – mostly pretended that their creative/commercial dark age didn’t happen (the only track played from either Know Your Enemy or Lifeblood was “Let Robeson Sing,” which the band seemed to play purely for its Americanness – it was still a show lowlight).
The trade-offs were welcome, especially with the Manics’ selections from Everything Must Go, a record that honestly could have supported seven or eight singles. Getting to hear “Enola/Alone” and, especially, the riveting “No Surface, All Feeling” added a distorted bombast to the proceedings that other tracks might not have. Also great: the acoustic interlude. Holy Bible standout “This is Yesterday” remains hauntingly beautiful, and when stripped of its unnecessary studio schlock the great song at the core of “The Everlasting” is allowed to shine. (Vocalist James Dead Bradfield offered the crowd a choice between “Everlasting” and “The Masses Against the Classes”…frankly, love the song though I do, I can’t imagine a worse one to hear acoustically.)
But these weren’t the core of the experience. This Manics tour was really about two things, the first being a salute to their quite-excellent Journal for Plague Lovers. Frankly, it’s a testament to the band’s modesty that they didn’t play more songs from the record; it would have been good enough to deserve more attention but, recognizing other objectives, they restricted Plague to four of its most essential, hard rock moments. They not only did the record justice, but it felt like a fitting, understated tribute to the missing Manic, whose spot stage-right is still left open for him after all these years.
The second thing was the classics. And dear lord, did they nail the classics.
Bouncing around on-stage like it was three times its size, Bradfield and the always-flamboyant Nicky Wire – sporting eyeliner, a captain’s hat and a ridiculous pair of sunglasses – played their biggest hits like they were a band half their age. If anything, they might be a *better* band today than they’ve ever been; they’ve traded in their danger, sure, but kept their passion and gained an incredible degree of professionalism over the years. Best of all is the decision they made a couple of years ago to finally add a touring guitarist in addition to their keyboardist. Their sound finally matches their energy.
For all the anthems they played – songs that mean/meant the world to me, like “Faster,” “Motown Junk,” “Little Baby Nothing,” – nothing came close to the exhilarating thrill of “A Design for Life,” the band’s other undeniably great anthem and the adult counterpoint to “Motorcycle Emptiness’” youthful nihilism. Every fist was thrown in the air, every bounce was repeated by the audience, and every impassioned line was belted by every set of lungs in the room. I can think of few other concert experiences that felt as much like an act of solidarity as a song, and few moments as memorable, period.
The band clearly felt the solidarity – not only did they look like they were having a blast and deliver some of the most grateful stage banter I’ve been privy too, but reports are that backstage the band was glowing, saying that they stayed away far too long. There was no encore – there never is at a Manics show – but their appreciation was palatable. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t take another 10 years to see the Manics at our shores.
Setlist and photos of both the Manics and opener Bear Hands after the fold…
No Surface All Feeling
Your Love Alone Is Not Enough
La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh)
Jackie Collins’ Existential Question Time
Let Robeson Sing
From Despair To Where
If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next
This Is Yesterday (acoustic)
The Everlasting (acoustic – with a tease of the opening riff to Sleepflower)
Send Away The Tigers
You Stole The Sun From My Heart
Motown Junk (w/intro of All or Nothing by the Small Faces)
Me and Stephen Hawking
Little Baby Nothing
You Love Us
A Design For Life