Following the Manics’ triumphant Cardiff shows for the NHS in September, I was itching to see the band again on their main tour for their incredible new album The Ultra Vivid Lament. Given that the band aren’t due to play London until December, which is FAR to long to wait, I opted for a quick city break to Cambridge to see the boys.
And what an excellent choice this was. For a Monday in October, the weather was gloriously sunny and breezy, making this autumn outing feel like a perfect summer day’s excursion. Strolling through Cambridge in the afternoon, I was struck with a wonderful sense of its vibrancy, this ancient city filled with youthful energy. And the Corn Exchange, when I finally got in there in the evening, turned out to be a fantastic venue. I made many mental notes to prioritise gigging jaunts to Cambridge in 2022.
The support band, Low Hummer, were completely fantastic, with a tuneful shouty punky energy mixed with an infectious warmth and a sheer joy for performance. I found myself wondering where the hell this sparkling gang of boys and girls had been when I was a teen, so I could have had my life changed by them and follow them obsessively around the country? (Answer: Not born yet, damn them).
And then it was time for the Manics. I was able to sneak up to a barrier position just before the band took the stage, and quite frankly couldn’t believe my luck. This was my first time at the barrier for the Manics since their Royal Albert Hall show in April 1997, and given the smaller size of the Corn Exchange, I’m pretty sure it’s the closest I’ve ever been to the boys.
As with the Cardiff gigs, the band played with a renewed sense of energy and purpose. The 2021 version of the band feels so much closer to the one I first saw live in 1996 than they did in their 2018 or 2019 gigs. James put the full force of his vocal and guitar prowess into every song, and while Nicky may not preen around in fabulous dresses any more, his sunglasses stare, scissor kicks and knees-aloft stride were intact. Best of all, when he removed his sunnies I was close enough to be able to admire his glittery eyeshadow.
It was also wonderful to hear a few more songs from the new album. “Still Snowing In Sapporo” was breathtaking, moving from the vulnerability of James’s acapella verses to the crashing euphoria of the choruses. And “Afterending” is one that I have been looking forward to hearing live since the day of the album’s release. What could be more perfect experience for a Manics fan that to hold your arms along and sing “sail into the abyss with me!” along with the boys? Best of all though was “Complicated Illusions”. After hearing Nicky explain at Cardiff that it was a song about his late mother, to see him smile as he sang along, watching the crowd sing along, was a truly beautiful moment.
As far as Manics classics were concerned, it was wonderful to hear “Enola/Alone”, a throwback to the era in which I saw the band for the first time. For the acoustic tune, James gave us a choice between “Stay Beautiful”, “From Despair To Where” and “La Tristesse Durera”, the latter of which won with the most screams. Having heard “Despair” in Cardiff, I was happy to hear another tune from the album that made me a fan, but I must admit that I was hoping for “Stay Beautiful” as the prospect of an acoustic rendition of that most energetic tune intrigues me.
Much as I thrilled to the sheer rock glam presence of Cat Southall at the Cardiff gigs, I loved the version of “The Secret He Had Missed” here, sung entirely by James. And 2018’s “International Blue” remains a surprising highlight, shining brightly amongst the decades-old classics.
Compared to some of their contemporaries – most notably Suede – it could be said that a Manics setlist is a somewhat predictable thing these days. You know it’s going to open with “Motorcycle Emptiness” and close with “You Love Us” and “A Design For Life”, and there’ll be “Your Love Alone” and “You Stole The Sun” somewhere in the mix. But to me now, that’s almost become part of the charm. Far from being weary at the thought of another gig commencing with “Motorcycle”, it’s got to the point where it creates something of a Pavlovian response in me – the sound of that riff an irresistible signal that a night of sheer Manics joy is about to begin. And let’s face it, ending with anything other than “Design” would just feel wrong, wouldn’t it?
And in amongst those predictable treats there are always a scattering of different gems – from the recent album tracks, to lesser-spotted singles like “Let Robeson Sing”, to their blistering cover of “Sweet Child O’Mine”. Some gig-goers on this tour were even treated to the ancient Heavenly version of “Spectators Of Suicide” (though sadly, that was not included on the setlist this night).
The main TUVL tour may now be over, but there’s still lots to look forward to, like the upcoming acoustic shows, plus the final Wembley extravaganza. But I have a strong notion that the band have even bigger things planned for 2022, and I can’t wait to find out what they may be.