Forever Heavenly, Royal Festival Hall, London

Songs of praise for posterity
  • @timwalker

Like any other hip, sociable teenager turning 18, Heavenly Records decided to celebrate by inviting a few friends out for a party, with some great music and a couple of drinks. Hence Forever Heavenly, a series of celebratory shows by Heavenly artists past and present, hosted by the Southbank Centre. Friday night was a treat by any measure, with Cherry Ghost, Doves and the Manic Street Preachers all making an appearance in the Royal Festival Hall and, afterwards, Ed Harcourt tinkling away downstairs in the Clore Ballroom.

Simon Aldred, whose solo project, Cherry Ghost, has grown into a five-piece band, nonetheless played a low-key set with just a second guitar and keyboards for company. His set was culled mostly from his 2007 debut, Thirst for Romance, and included the lovely "Mathematics", "Dead Man's Suit" and the album's title track. Aldred has a gift for a bittersweet melody and his rich Boltonian vocal, reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch, was more than worthy of the magnificent acoustics in the recently refurbished RFH.

The Manics, meanwhile, played just six songs: the two early singles, "Motown Junk" and "You Love Us", and accompanying B-sides that they recorded with Heavenly in 1991 and 1992. It ought to be odd to see these three familiar men on the verge of middle age, whose music has become increasingly coffee-table friendly, playing the "Situationist punk" that first made them famous when they were brash, world-baiting youngsters. Yet the songs still sound vital today, even with their pretentious-teen's lyrics. Particular, unfamiliar highlights were "We, Her Majesty's Prisoners" and "Starlover", which their frontman, James Dean Bradfield, admitted they'd only played live once before.

The absence of Richey James Edwards, the Manics' iconoclastic and long-disappeared lyricist/ guitarist, was keenly felt, and acknowledged by the bassist, Nicky Wire. But, clearly having a whale of a time, Wire told the crowd with a laugh that he wished they'd recorded more with Heavenly before rushing off to sign a more lucrative deal with Sony. Certainly, everyone in the room would have relished a longer set, but had to settle instead for the blaze of noise and light that was the show-closer, "You Love Us".

Doves have only played two gigs in more than two and a half years, but they've earned the break: the band's last two records, 2002's The Last Broadcast and 2005's Some Cities, were both No 1 albums for Heavenly. Still a tight, rhythmic three-piece (plus their unofficial member, Martin Rebelski, on keys), the band played a selection of recently recorded numbers from a forthcoming fourth album – delayed until spring 2009 – alongside more familiar material. The new "Winter Hill" opens with a "Baba O'Riley"-esque guitar loop and, like The Who's classic cut, becomes a satisfying crunch of chords. "Kingdom of Rust", too, sounds like a nailed-on hit single, the pair of songs supplying the band's signature combination of euphoria and melancholia.

Much of Doves' output is, to quote the title of one of their best-known tracks, pounding, led by Jimi Goodwin's driving basslines and Andy Williams's atomic- clock drumming, and followed by the curling, repeating guitar licks of Jez Williams. But they have touching acoustic tracks, too, like the slight, witty "Northenden" from Lost Sides, their 2003 collection of B-sides and remixes, and the wonderful "Caught By the River", which Goodwin dutifully dedicated to his father.

They ended their first set with the infectious carnival romp that is "There Goes the Fear" – their biggest single to date – which concludes in a clatter of percussion from all four band members. Then the encore, opening with "Northenden", was rounded out by "Black and White Town" and "The Cedar Room", the first a bleak anthem for those stifled by life in "satellite towns", and the second an atmospheric epic from Doves' debut LP from 2000, Lost Souls. Goodwin left the stage, wine glass in hand, toasting the crowd. Here's to another 18 Heavenly years.