Manic Street Preachers at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Friday 17th and Saturday 18th of May, 2019

It’s been 14 years since I’d made it to two Manics gigs on consecutive nights, and I felt it was high time to change that. So I quickly snapped up tickets to these two nights, to celebrate twenty and a bit years since the release of “This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours”. This was an album I initially found very difficult to love on its original release on the 14th of September 1998, as evidenced by this little rant in my diary after my first listen:

“How boring are strings? “Tolerate” is about the 3rd fastest song on the album! What the fuck is this band up to! What the fuck is this band? Placid Street Preachers?? On first listen, it drags… dense, fuzzy harmonies submerge the songs. Get ON with it you want to howl! Oh let’s give it another spin.”

And I did give it another spin, and another, and another, and eventually it became one of my favourite Manics albums of them all, so much so that when ranking the albums on the Manics fan forum foreverdelayed in 2014, I put it in second place, behind only “Lifeblood”.

And now here we are in May 2019, celebrating 20.58 years since the album was first released, with this tour in which the album is played in full. Or not, as it turns out, for last year’s reissue of the album unceremoniously booted “Nobody Loved You” from its penultimate position into a mere hidden track, and at the gigs, the band are seemingly pretending that the song does not exist at all. There may be a valid reason behind this – they haven’t actually told us why – but I can’t deny that it rankles with me somewhat, especially as that song was the first one I connected with way back in September 1998, as I noted in my diary: “Nobody Loved You” is fab though. Bit of fire. Next single please. Oh but it’ll be “Sun” or “Tsunami” though.” Which of course was an entirely correct prediction.

Spring 2019 has taken a while to get going, but the few days before these shows saw a shy emergence of sunshine. However, on Manics Friday, we were plunged back into grey blustery showers, and I strode out to Shepherds Bush in weather that felt more like October than mid May. In this day and age of online ticket rackets like StubHub and fan-punishing gig ID policies, it was almost nice to see an old school tout peddling tickets outside the venue. Though it was very tempting to respond to his cheerful query of ‘need any tickets love?’ with “I’m dressed as a glitter explosion in khaki and leopard print, do I LOOK like I haven’t got my ticket yet??”

Arriving about ten minutes after doors, I found myself a good spot Nicky-side, and very swiftly thereafter the lights dimmed for the support slot from Gwenno. Her Cornish language album “Le Kov” was one of my favourites of last year and so I was very much looking forward to seeing her, and she did not disappoint. Dressed in a wafty rustic white frock she ploughed intrepidly through a fine selection of tunes despite relative indifference from the crowd. Her sound, which was somewhat ethereal on the album, came through much more gutsy and powerful live. Best of all was the 17th century ode to cheese “Eus Keus” which was delightfully off-kilter and almost punky.

The Manics came on precisely half an hour after Gwenno’s set ended. With a muted backdrop of the TIMT album cover and no projections or particularly swanky lighting, this was very much a no-frills Manics experience. Combined with the melancholic, ponderous nature of three quarters of the album, it meant the first half of the show was by and large a muted affair. This was by no means a bad thing, and it was wonderful to hear some of my rarely performed favourites, like “Ready For Drowning”, which brought back wonderful memories of first hearing it at Reading 1997, and “You’re Tender And You’re Tired”, with its whistling solo transferred to guitar for its live version. Even rarer tracks like “I’m Not Working” and “Be Natural” were surprisingly powerful, with all their dark intricacies made bright and gleaming. However, I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was an album that would be better appreciated at a seated venue, such as the Royal Albert Hall where they showcased “Everything Must Go” for its 20th anniversary.

And the issues I noticed at their Royal Festival Hall gig last year were still present – namely, the six-strong line-up with two additional guitarists made some of the more energetic songs such as “Prologue To History” seem a little bogged down. Additionally, guitarist’s Wayne’s backing vocals were way too loud, meaning that on for example the chorus of “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” I could barely hear James at all.

“Tolerate” was booted from its second song position to the end of the “This Is My Truth” set, which felt a little unnecessary, but it did mark a decisive end to the anniversary portion of the show. And despite having enjoyed hearing the album played (almost) in full, it was in the second half that the gig truly came to life. When the deep and dirty riff of “Sleepflower” kicked in, it was hard to believe that this was just an album track from 1993, because for any other band a track this immense would be their monster, career-defining hit. “International Blue” felt immensely celebratory, and it was particularly wonderful for me to hear “Solitude Sometimes Is” from my favourite Manics album, the largely ignored “Lifeblood”. Though I could have done without James’s disparaging remarks about the fans who love that album (and there are plenty of us).

The last five songs were where this gig became truly untouchable. “People Give In” is my anthem of last year and is undeniably a classic to rival any they’ve ever done. And then “La Tristesse Durera” was incredible, with its propelling rhythm and its snaking guitar line. Finally, throughout “You Love Us”, the flickering light splattered “No Surface All Feeling” and of course, the final “A Design For Life”, it really could have been one of my first Manics gigs in 1996, with all their fire and passion and the throat-tearing, screaming exhilaration.

I made my way home with knackered limbs and aching back, yet still feeling energised by the show I’d just seen. And a good thing too, because my journey home turned out to be a longer one than I had planned. The Central Line tube carriage I was in became overwhelmed with the smell of smoke and we were swiftly evacuated at Marble Arch, which necessitated a weary trundle down to Oxford Circus to continue my journey, as a fire engine wailed past to deal with the possible blaze. Happily it seems as though it was dealt with swiftly as the station soon reopened, but still, you know you’ve had an explosive night out when your tube carriage catches on fire.

So after a day to recover I made my way back to the Empire for night two. I arrived at roughly the same time as on Friday, and this time found a spot on the other side of the stage, just at the end of the side barrier and again a great view. Gwenno was just as magical as the night before, and I made definite plans to see her again as soon as she next tours.

And when the Manics came on, I thought that this gig was going to be one of the greatest I’d ever witnessed them do. The band were full of fire, the crowd monstrously up for it, and “The Everlasting”, “You Stole The Sun From My Heart” and “Ready For Drowning” were pure euphoria. And it definitely was a great gig – “Prologue To History” in particular shone much more this night than the previous one, “Sleepflower” was still incredible, and the last three songs were again a distillation of pure, golden MSP exhilaration.

But they lost the momentum somewhere. Swapping out the glorious “People Give In” for the plodding “It’s Not War, Just The End Of Love” didn’t help. But really it was certain members of the crowd, and not the band, that made this gig one I’ll remember with less fondness. I stand to the far side of gigs for a reason – I can’t tolerate the moshpit and hate being shoved and jostled. In my section of the crowd this night there was a high proportion of women – some apparently, like me, gigging solo – and I would very much suspect that most of them had chosen this vantage point for the same reason as me. So when a group of pissed up blokes came charging into this area to mosh during “Motorcycle Emptiness” it completely ruined my enjoyment of the song. Wankers like this who come into quieter areas to mosh, without having to risk being moshed upon themselves, are a particular bane of gigs at the Shepherds Bush Empire, possibly due to the small size of its standing area, and it makes me very wary of attending a gig there again.

Luckily these idiots were only present for one song, but having been shoved and hit and trampled for the entirety of “Motorcycle Emptiness” my ability to enjoy the rest of the gig was severely limited, as it was impossible to know if they would return during later songs. And with such a packed venue there was nowhere for me to escape to. To be completely honest, I spent the rest of the gig feeling uneasy and not entirely safe.

And it seems I had good reason, as the news came after the gig that a woman had been assaulted during it. And on Twitter, a stream of fans have come forward to say that they too have had similar experiences at Manics gigs. And this can’t go on. I really, really hope that the Manics make a statement saying that this behaviour will not be tolerated at their gigs. Other bands have done so, and it would make me feel a lot safer at my next Manics gig to know that they have acknowledged the problem and are doing what they can to stop it. Because right now, their silence feels like this behaviour is being tacitly condoned.

Despite ending on a low note, I did have a great time at these gigs, particularly Friday night. But in many ways, I’m hoping that the next Manics tour will see a fresh start, for both the band and the fans.

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