James Dean Bradfield, ULU, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The birth of Manic Street Preachers front man Bradfield as a full-blooded lyricist, songwriter and solo artist has taken 15 years.

Bradfield's use of the group's two-year lay-off to record and tour his debut album, The Great Western, could indicate how institutionalised he has become - a slave to the album/tour cycle that was established during the fabled group's 17-year career.

But it is much more - a better album than the Manics have made for a decade, the passionate, sometimes dark, heart of the Blackwood-bred band laid bare.

Bradfield's big searing tunes present valiant harmony-coated rock that is matched by poignant and perceptive lyrics. His words are stripped clean of the pained intellectualising and garish overstatement that have often marred the band's work.

A stocky figure in working-man black T-shirt, Bradfield brandishes a series of electric and acoustic guitars and between songs remains a wry, undemonstrative figure. He belittles his Manic-less stature as he welcomes the crowd to "an evening with James Dean Bradfield and The C Stream Band" and leads the four-piece into the suitably Springsteenesque opener "Run Romeo Run".

Death and fond memories stalk new album standout "An English Gentleman", vocally he is at full tilt - the plucked acoustic entrée building into a great, hit-'em-between-the-eyes harmony-drenched cry from the heart.

On "Ocean Spray", his sole outing as the Manics' lyricist, the soulful and sultry imprecations in the face of the reaper recall prime influence: native Welsh rock tragedian and melodist Pete "Badfinger" Ham.

There's an old worldly quality in the punk-charged 1970s soft rock complete with those honey harmonies that he loves. His musical aspirations are underlined by the introduction of the special guest, keyboard player Ed Harcourt, as "the English Todd Rundgren". Thankfully, Bradfield has a commitment and honesty wholly absent from Rundgren's last London outing.

On "On Saturday Morning We Will Rule The World", the opening words - "We fall asleep to the national anthem" - summon a lost time and place. He says the song is about "not fearing death" but Bradfield's default poetic voice is that of valedictorian, bearing witness to friends and ways of life that have passed - yet keeping spirit and community alive in his music.

With shamelessly nostalgic glam touches and guitar hero poses there's a winning innocence countering the oft-world-weary tinge of the lyrics. A sense of defiant fun and hot-wired energy informs his boy-racer, straining-at-the-leash lead lines, masterfully entwined with Harcourt's Fairlight strings and soothing harmonies on "Say Hello To The Pope".

A tender solo acoustic spot featuring a rare outing for the Manics' "This Is Yesterday" from the The Holy Bible and Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind" deepens his connection with the past. Defiantly squaring up to the raised voices at the bar he resembles a beefy but gentle mechanic, getting into the songs' engine rooms and reconfiguring them. The approach recalls the great acoustic outings on Joe Strummer's final album, another prime Bradfield influence who has passed on but lives anew here.

The joyous "sha la la la" sucker punch of "Emigré" and the rapid repeater drum riffs powering the decade-old Manics favourite "No Surface All Feeling" , the climax to their bestselling Everything Must Go album, keep dolefulness at bay and the majestic final encore "Which Way To Kyffin" has gilding to spare.

All in all it is a storming and accomplished display, a reminder that it is surely Bradfield's melodies and unfailingly earthy vocals that have been responsible for the Manics' most commercially successful moments.

The nagging lack of self-esteem may be part of Bradfield's appeal but he really shouldn't be so hard on himself - on the evidence of this performance the C Stream lad is more than ready to enter the A Team.