James Dean Bradfield, Barfly, London

The point of going solo is...?

"When is the restraining order going to work?" he half-jokes, after the tenth heckle for "PCP" or "Sleepflower" or "Born To End" or some other fan-loved relic of the Manic Street Preachers. "This country's gone to the dogs..."

Being James Dean Bradfield comes with baggage. In literal terms, it means that the carrying case for his drummer's toms has "MSP" painted on it. In figurative terms it means that he will never, ever escape the shadow of his own band.

Black shirt, red Gibson, kiss curl, self-effacing smile: it's like he's never been away, and the Manics' two-year sabbatical (declared in April 2005) never existed. Indeed, tonight's show in a small Camden sweatbox has a very Manicsy feel about it. Prominent members of the Manics' extended personnel are present - the names Eringa, Nasmyth and Davo will resonate with trainspotters - and I run into the band's live agent and label boss, while the Manics' regular tour DJ is behind the decks.

This mini-tour, give or take a cameo, is the first time Bradfield has performed outside the Manics identity. (His new band consists of Wayne Murray on guitar, James Chant on bass, Sean Read on keyboards, and Nick Dewey on drums.) Both he and bassist Nicky Wire are bringing out solo albums at roughly the same time, while drummer Sean Moore takes a break.

A giant "Why?" hovers over the whole project. The Manics haven't split acrimoniously. They are, it seems, also working on new Manics material. More to the point, they haven't taken the opportunity to charge off into new and uncharted musical directions. Indeed, both Bradfield's The Great Western and Wire's as-yet-untitled effort both sound a lot like late-period Preachers.

There are one or two exceptions on show tonight. The closing "Which Way To Kyffin" (presumably named after the Welsh landscape painter Kyffin Williams) begins with a sampled "ah-ah-ah" reminiscent of Laurie Anderson's "O Superman", and I'm startled to hear the use of saxophone, a most un-Manics instrument. But Bradfield's vocal technique - his knack of switching between a heroic gale-force bellow and an angelic falsetto - hasn't altered.

The public perception of Bradfield as a skilled artisan following orders from those around him is, while grossly unfair (he's the intellectual, aesthetic and political equal of anyone else in the band), perhaps convenient for him: this way, he can elude some of the more lunatic attention visited upon his flamboyant sidekick Wire. He's safe to socialise in the bar, before and after the show.

He also seems to feel more freedom to chat than he might at a Manics event. The atmosphere is pleasantly informal: it takes several attempts to give "The Wrong Beginning" the, er, right beginning, and each time he throws a mock-diva hissy fit, spitting, "This is not acceptable".

He's relaxed enough to please the hardcore with a couple of Manics tracks: "Ocean Spray" (the song he wrote about the death of his mother), and "This Is Yesterday" (a regular acoustic interlude in MSP shows).

Tonight, even the nutters are in humorous mood. In the front row, a group of fans has erected a washing line, with five pairs of knickers pegged to it. It spells "J-A-M-E-S".