October 6th, 2009 |


My first attempt at seeing Manic Street Preachers didn’t go so well. They were scheduled to play mid-afternoon at a radio station festival in 115 degree heat, at a racetrack, on the extreme desert outskirts of Phoenix, AZ. Some of the other acts on the bill that day now seem like bands that existed in another life. Voodoo Glowskulls, Smoking Popes, Cake and Goldfinger played alongside headliners of the day Butthole Surfers and 311. I showed up bright and early, as this was still pre-internet (for me and most people)—if you didn’t want to miss a band at a festival you showed up at the start of the day just in case they put them on first. It was announced on the radio as I was pulling up in my car that Manic Street Preachers had to cancel their show last minute, and a little known band of Mesa, AZ-golden-boys called Jimmy Eat World were available day-of to take their place. In the span of their half hour set I would get a sneak preview of what the new blueprint for mainstream rock music was going to sound like for the next thirteen years or so of my life, and the only words I could use to describe it then was boy punk—soon I would learn another word for it.

That day Jimmy Eat World had their way with the crowd, but tonight in the fall of 2009 at the Avalon, Manic Street Preachers were back and hungry for blood. Almost a decade and a half later, vengeance would be theirs. Bloodlust was proven by their selection of “Motorcycle Emptiness” for the set opener, a daring choice and beloved fan favorite. They could have easily painted themselves into a corner here, had they not possessed the foresight to write enough European festival anthems to fill out tonight’s husky 22 song mega-set. (Author’s note: I’m 99% sure that Manic Street Preachers and Jimmy Eat World are both unaware that they are bitter rivals locked in battle for the soul of rock music.)

With their last tour of the States now over ten years ago, the band looks no worse for the wear. Bassist and longstanding main songwriter Nicky Wire is an attention getter, as always, doing high kicks wearing a naval captain’s hat in front of his boa-covered mic-stand that could double for a colorful giant macaw. James Dean Bradfield’s voice is as beautiful and crystalline as ever, an instrument that is simultaneously capable of the range and timbre of Peter Cetera and the sneer and outrage of John Lydon, making it possible for this band to turn even a mundane cover song into a universe expanding melody.

As they worked their way through some of the biggest hits of the Brit-pop era, it becomes painfully obvious that we’re watching a show that is usually performed to oceanic crowds of 100,000 plus—in a venue with a packed floor but an almost entirely empty balcony. This is a band that is able to write songs that deliver on the promise of titles like “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart” and “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.” Hearing the disdain and venom Bradfield is still able to draw out of the lines like “So if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists,” is extremely powerful.

They finish tonight by telling the audience that “We’ve already shot our load” and that they would not be back out for an encore, but even after a generous career-spanning set, their catalog was far from exhausted. Only several songs from their excellent new record Journal For Plague Lovers were played tonight—which features lyrics entirely composed by Richey Edwards before his disappearance in 1995. Leaving us all wondering if they will deliver on the promise to return soon and play for us again.

They exit with “A Design For Life,” with their music as impossible as ever to describe—a big rock sound, one of the most beautiful voices in pop music, but also a glam punk band whose politically charged lyrics are some of the most clever and biting you’re likely to hear. In some ways their music seems extremely accessible, but in other ways Manic Street Preachers falls between so many genres that their commercial failure here in the States can easily be blamed on our need to be able to identify a clearly marketable genre, as listeners and as record companies. Their music belongs wherever it was that Richey decided to walk off to, somewhere better, more open and accepting, somewhere new.

Michael Cameron