The Manics in Cardiff, playing two gigs for the NHS, at the top of their game. It doesn’t get much better than that.
It’s fair to say that April 2020 was rough for everyone. We were just a handful of weeks into an entirely unknown place – a pandemic, a lockdown, navigating a new home-bound reality with an unpredictable future. Into this dark place, on Wednesday the 8th of April, a little blaze of sunshine came into my world – the announcement of these two gigs from the Manics in support of the NHS.
The boost to my mood in light of this was huge, and having these gigs to look forward to helped power me through the months of strange isolation and uncertainty. We may have had to wait a little bit longer than originally planned, as first the original December 2020 dates, then the replacements in July 2021, were made impossible due to COVID restrictions. The final change was to this very September, but I must admit that it was well into the month before I truly believed that these new dates were actually going to go ahead.
But when mid-September rolled around, it turned out to be the most brilliant time possible for these gigs to actually happen. The previous week had been one of the most thrilling in my near three decades of being a Manics fan, as we intrepidly awaited daily revelations of what new exciting bundles of their incredible new album “The Ultra Vivid Lament” would be released, enticing us to buy yet more copies in a successful bid to get it to number one. (My own contribution ended up being a standard CD, two deluxe CDs, one standard vinyl plus seven inch, one picture disc and two downloads).
In this elated mood, it was finally time to descend upon Cardiff to experience these long-promised gigs. After a summer that was either far too hot or far too rainy, Britain had finally entered into a truly glorious weather period, and Cardiff was sunny and breezy as I arrived on Sunday to make my way to the first gig. A mere glance at my vaccine card was all that was required for me to be waved into the arena, and it was a joy to discover an almost entirely maskless crowd. The thought of witnessing an entire Manics gig through a mask, with glasses fogging up at every attempt to holler or sing along, had not been an appealing one.
Finally finding myself inside the Motorpoint arena was incredible, thinking back to that moment in the depths of lockdown one when these gigs were announced, not knowing what the future may hold or when normality might return. To be living in September 2021 and not April 2020 is a wonderful thing, even if ‘normality’ may remain a hazy and nebulous concept. I found myself a space near the front and to the far left, in an attempt to recreate the amazing Manics experience I’d had at that arena in 2002.
There was an old-school DJ playing hits from the 70s through to the 00’s, with David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging”, the Dandy Warhols’ “We Used To Be Friends” and Faith No More’s “Midlife Crisis” being particular highlights amid a lot of 80s new wave tunes. A bit before 9pm he was off, and we were treated to quite a sombre and bleak pre-gig tape, with a decidedly non-party mood set by ABBA’s “Eagle”.
All this time, quotes from Nye Bevan relating to the creation of the NHS were displayed on the stage. A perfect and fitting backdrop for this gig, especially from the point of view of a Manics fan, but I do wonder if they were lost somewhat on a large part of the NHS staff audience. In my nearly 25 years of working in the NHS, I have only encountered a mention of Bevan once in a work context, during a presentation on productivity I attended in 2018. For the most part, the many NHS staff I have worked with over the years do not consider their career choice to be a political statement, or feel an intense need to research the origins of the NHS. Rather, it is a reflection of their desire to help people and make a difference in the here and now, regardless of which political party they may vote for.
Around 9pm the pounding bass of Gwenno’s remix of “Orwellian” pulsated through the arena, and the band walked on stage to James’s chilling repeated cry of “wage war!” And, of course, the gig began with “Motorcycle Emptiness”. While this may be unutterably predictable for the Manics faithful, it was a perfect opener for this gig. The band sounded ferocious and truly on fire, but the crowd took a little while to truly ignite. This was largely a crowd of NHS staff on a free night out, after all, not Manics obsessives.
However, I can attest from many, many nights out with NHS colleagues over the years (and many, many devastating morning afters) that if there is one thing NHS workers know how to do, it is PARTY, and before long the crowd was raucous and roaring as classic after classic were delivered. “You Stole The Sun From My Heart” and “Everything Must Go” were massive, as was the more recent “International Blue”, a storming tune to match any of their earlier hits. It was particularly delightful to see the two lads in front of me light up with joy and hug each other as it began. Clearly the band is still capable of drawing new fans in with every era.
And if there ever was a time when a renaissance in Manics fandom seemed nigh, it’s now. Buoyed by their number one album this week, they do truly seem to have a new energy and purpose which may have been slightly lacking in some of the gigs I saw between 2018 and 2019. With only one extra guitarist now, their sound is less overblown and much punchier. Most notably for me, however, was the pure vocals-and-guitar-pummeling power of James, restored to the supersonic levels I witnessed when I first saw them in 1996. I have largely been a Nicky girl throughout my near quarter century of Manics gigging, but I have to admit I barely looked at him this night. Their cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring On The Dancing Horses” proved a particular highlight of my James appreciation, showcasing his unmatchable voice to brilliant effect.
Closing the first half with the stunning “Complicated Illusions” and an absolutely blistering “Tolerate”, it was then time for the acoustic set from James. I was utterly thrilled that the song he chose this night was the most important Manics song of them all to me, “From Despair To Where”, the song that converted me to MSP obsession way back in 1993. But following this was when everything went into overdrive. First, a hugely celebratory singalong of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, and then with the rest of the band returning to the stage it was time for a riotous version of Guns’n’Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. This gig was truly ablaze from here on in: leaping to “Tsunami”, swaying to “Let Robeson Sing”, everything sounding so bright and clear and brilliant.
Cat Southall, who’d provided vocals on “The Secret He Had Missed” in the first half, returned for a truly definitive version of “Little Baby Nothing”, somehow exceeding the brilliance of both Kylie Minogue and the Anchoress, both of whom I have previously witnessed singing on this duet. And the final three tracks truly raised the roof: “You Love Us”, “No Surface All Feeling”, and finally the most amazing “A Design For Life” I’ve witnessed for decades – at least it felt that way, but then, perhaps it always does.
Night two came along, and I experienced a bit of a set-back to my gigging adventures in the shape of an extremely ill-timed IBS flare-up. Luckily it subsided in time for me to make it to the arena, but sadly it meant I missed all but the final track of the support band Himalayas, who sounded quite fab in an Arctic Monkeys kinda way. Needing a bit of breathing space given my depleted state, I stood much further back than usual for this gig, about half way back but dead centre, and had an excellent view of the entire stage.
The crowd this night was definitely comprised of full-blown Manics obsessives, and as “Motorcycle Emptiness” roared up once again, it felt truly wonderful to be in the middle of such a throng, hearing the multitudinous voices singing along to every word. I settled in for a traditional evening of hollering and leaping about as much as my weary state would allow, and it was great.
The crowd was a bit wild this night, quite possibly full of people on their first gig back since lockdown and understandably going somewhat apeshit. The setlist was only slightly changed from Sunday, but included a few new highlights. Cat appeared for the same duets as the previous night, but also for a turn on “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”, somehow turning my least favourite Manics single into an enjoyable romp – clearly, this woman is a wizard of some kind. The acoustic song this time was “Postcards From A Young Man”, and while it’ll never be amongst my fave Manics tunes, this stripped down version was actually quite gorgeous and rousing, and made me re-evaluate my opinion of the song.
The other surprise in the set was “Slash ‘n’ Burn” and what could I do but go completely mental? The sheer thrill of yelling “Slash! and buuuurn!” along with the frantic crowd was overwhelming, and alas I overdid it somewhat, prompting an unwelcome and quite forceful return of my abdominal pain. But I am no stranger to the art of Manics gigging whilst in extreme pain, and merely modified my shouting-and-pointing approach to allow for one hand to grasp my ailing organs while the other was thrust joyously in the air to “You Love Us”.
I will admit however that given this pain, I was a little relieved afterwards that they skipped “No Surface All Feeling” and went straight to “A Design For Life”. The already quite bonkers crowd went truly chaotic here, with boys and girls throwing themselves atop each other’s shoulders like it was Glastonbury or something, several people near me rolling around on the floor (have they learned NOTHING about hygiene in the last 18 months?) and later reports suggested that many people near the front had to be hauled collapsing out of the throng. Given all this mayhem, it was not the most euphoric or emotional rendition of “A Design For Life” I have ever experienced, but good lord, it was an experience.
The most wonderful thing about these gigs is just how brilliant the Manics are sounding right now. Compared to some of the more comfortable and predictable shows I saw from them in 2018 and 2019, they seem now like a band with a new mission and purpose, their confidence soaring into the stratosphere. I cannot wait to see what the main tour for their stunning “The Ultra Vivid Lament” will hold. For the first time in well over a decade, I truly believe that the most glorious days of being a Manics fan are ahead of me, not behind me, and it’s hard to think of many things more exciting than that.