As a result, they don’t play here very often. In fact, it’s been 10 years since the last time they ventured to the States to play gigs.
That is until this week.
Riding on a wave of success and critical acclaim for their most recent album titled Journal for Plague Lovers (read my review of that album and some background on the group by clicking here), this three piece band from Wales at long last decided it was time to come back to the USA and play some shows.
And where did the band pick to play their first US show in a decade? Yep, Seattle.
And so it was that last Monday – Sept. 21 – my buddy Paul and I went to see the band at Neumos on Capital Hill. (Below - Manic Street Preachers on stage in Seattle on Sept. 21, 2009. Photo by Marc Osborn.)
Naturally, our expectations were high and, I have to say, they were exceeded as the band threw down an exciting, impassioned and extremely entertaining set – all in a very small venue where you could get right up close. For those of you unfamiliar with the Manic Street Preacher’s sound, it’s rock and roll with the standard set up of guitar, bass, drum and a few effects. The band’s style has ranged from raging but melodic punk, epic and soaring rock, chilled art rock and a bunch of sounds in between...all with intelligent and thought provoking lyrics.
The other thing to know is that in their early years, the band had four members. In early 1995, their primary lyric writer and second guitarist, Richey Edwards, went missing. He’s never been found and is presumed dead - leaving surviving members James Dean Bradfield (vocals, guitar), Nicky Wire (bass, vocals) and Sean Moore (drums) to carry on. Journal for Plague lovers is the Manic’s ninth studio album and its first featuring all-Richey lyrics since that time.
But anyway, back to the show. Our evening started out as Paul and I walked past the venue and heard the band running through the sound check. As the song Peeled Apples boomed out beyond the walls of Neumos, we knew we were in for a good show.
Meeting James Dean Bradfield
Later, after we’d had a bite to eat, we were again walking near the venue in the warm late-summer evening on our way to a bar when we ran right into lead singer James Dean Bradfield. Yep. He was out on the street corner. So, I walked up to him and thanked him for coming to Seattle. After a hand shake he quickly asked, “What’s your name?” I thought this was a really great response and one that was instantly engaging. I mean, he could have easily said thanks and walked away. Instead, we introduced ourselves and he mentioned that it had been 10 years since they’d been to Seattle and that the band members were huge REM fans – and they know Peter Buck lives in the area. I mentioned to James that indeed Buck is still around and that he comes out to shows pretty regularly. I also mentioned that they were playing the same Seattle venue a decade later, and he asked what the name of it was back then. I told him it was called Areo.Space ten years ago. He said, “This place?” I confirmed. At that point, I just said thanks again and let him know we were looking forward to the show. James graciously said thanks and was on his way. The whole conversation was about a minute. So, was this short chance meeting some sort of serious intellectual exchange or bonding moment? No. But, it was great because James was approachable, nice and willing to talk. Sometimes when you meet people you admire in person, they disappoint. This was clearly not so this time. Thank you James for taking a minute to talk to us.
Pleased as punch to have met the lead singer for one of our favorite bands, Paul and I did then make it to the bar right next to Neumos. As we passed through the door we saw James again…this time snared by a few guys asking him to sign a bunch of records and other Manics items. In hindsight, I’m really glad I didn’t do that to him as that action tends to simply come across to the performer as “this is just about me getting something from you” rather than any other type of conversation you could have.
The Venue and Vibe
After some conversations at the bar with some cool guys from a band named Post Adolescence, we headed on into the main venue to get a spot for the show.
By my assessment, Neumos was more three-quarters full. Not sold out. While it was tightly packed near the stage, toward the back there was plenty of room. This must be a bit strange for the band because everywhere else in the world they play its in big stadiums or arenas…and that’s why this was an even more special gig. Great band, small venue, cheap ticket.
The crowd seemed to be people age 40 and under with the majority looking to be in their late 20s, early 30s…and a few of us geezers right at the 40 mark. As you might expect, the crowd was also majority male – but not dominantly.
Finally, the band came on stage to loud cheers looking ready to go. Bradfield was dressed in black and began the show with his white Gibson Les Paul, Wire sported a red glittery bass and wore a white jacket that he kept on the entire time - concealing what appeared to be an Elvis Presley t-shirt - and Sean Moore...well, you could barely see him, but it looked like he was wearing a black t-shirt with some soft of design on it. You can see more pictures I took at the show here and here.
The band quickly ripped into one of their older but best songs, Motorcycle Emptiness. The full set list is below:
No Surface All Feeling
Your Love Alone Is Not Enough
La Tristessa Durera
Jackie Collins Existential Question Time
Let Robeson Sing
You Love Us
Everything Must Go
Take The Skinheads Bowling
If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next
Small Black Flowers (acoustic)
This is Yesterday (acoustic)
Send Away The Tigers
You Stole The Sun
All or Nothing into Motown Junk
Me And Stephen Hawking
Little Baby Nothing
This Joke Sport Severed
Design For Life
The sound system they set up was perhaps the best I’ve heard at Neumos as all instruments and vocals were clear and dialed in.
I was impressed with the diversity of the songs from their back-catalogue and that they played some of the best stuff off their latest album. For my expectations, this set really delivered with my favorites being Jackie Collins Existential Question Time, Peeled Apples and Faster. However, all songs were great. I like that they sprinkled in a few surprises like their cover of Take the Skinheads Bowling and the ode to singer/actor/athlete/activist Paul Robeson called Let Robeson Sing. I assume the later was a cheeky dig at the U.S. But, it’s a good song with intelligent lyrics. I liked that it was included.
In terms of performance, I have just say this…it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I cannot underscore this enough. This show had it all - talent aplenty, great songs, engaged, passionate and energy to burn. This band was by my observation really glad to be there and put on a great performance. James Dean Bradfield in particular delivered the goods with his powerful vocals, jumping around, spinning around and generally kicking ass. I was also glad that at one point near the beginning of the show, Bradfield announced that it had been 10 years since they’d been in Seattle and that the last time they played here the venue was called “Aero-Smith or something like that.” I had to laugh. I assumed he was going on our little exchange on the street…at least that’s what I’ll go ahead and believe.
Nicky Wire did something that I noticed in the show 10 years ago…he played almost the entire set with his eyes closed. I’m not sure if that’s a regular thing with him or if the small venue was the reason. But, he also jumped around and did his scissor kicks a few times and had a few words for the audience.
Details for Fans
For fans out there who might be wondering small details, here are some to report:
- After a few seconds of Your Love Alone…James stopped the band and said that “one thing about getting older – not old, but older – is a low tolerance for an out of tune guitar.” He then promptly swapped out his white Gibson for another guitar and re-started the song from the beginning.
- When introducing the song Faster, bassist Nicky Wire said that, “Richey never made it to Seattle, but his music did. He would have loved it here for all its beautiful pretentiousness.” After the song, Wire said, “I meant pretentiousness in a good way.”
- The Manics are selling t-shirts at the US gigs. The ones we saw were the Working Class Hero shirt and two slightly different black shirts – both with the cover art from Journal for Plague Lovers on them. While I like the cover art for the album, I’m not too keen on wearing it around on my chest. But that’s me.
- As mentioned, Nicky Wire did seem to be fully mobile and no longer suffering from his previous back problems.
- Drummer Sean Moore got quite a few shout outs during the show…more than I thought he would.
- There was not Manics stage backdrop art. Just a basic stage setup. In fact, the stage was so small that Moore really was pretty invisible as his drums were not on a riser (that I could see anyway).
- There were two other performers on stage with the band. A second guitarist and a keyboard player. Both were clearly part of the band (in other words not hidden in back or anything), but also clearly off to one side of the small stage.
- The concert closed with Bradfield announcing that “this is our last song tonight. It’s called Design for Life.” And with that followed with a note-perfect performance of that great tune. After their thank-yous and leaving the stage, the crowd cheered mightily for them to come back for a few more songs, but it was not to be. Normally, I might be disappointed in this. However, the Manics played about an hour and a half of great rock and roll – so, I’ll give them a break.
After the show, Paul and I went across the street for one last drink and to go over what we’d just witnessed. We summarized many of the points I’ve made above in this post and concluded that this one is right up there with the best we’d seen. I mean, in the end…when you get to see a band of this caliber that’s one of your all-time favorites in such a small venue with great sound and oh by the way meet the lead singer (and he’s cool)…well, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
Ears ringing, smiles on our faces and full of the knowledge that we’d just seen a truly unlikely but spectacular show…we headed home.