Manic Street Preachers / The Magic Numbers, Apollo, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

When I tell you that I'm going through a bit of a Manic Street Preachers phase at the moment, it's only in relative terms: my whole adult life has been a bit of a Manics phase.

Interest declared. But I'm not the only one. MSP weren't on the bill when XFM's Winter Wonderland fundraiser (for homeless charity Shelter) was first announced, but somehow their fans have snapped up nearly all the tickets. The Manics have, more through design than accident, acquired two audiences, almost completely discrete. There are the "normals", the casually-clothed lads who bellow along to Oasis before showtime, and there are the (funda)mentalists, the glitter and boa-clad Nation of Richey types who slept outside the Apollo the previous night to ensure a position at the barrier. The ratio is approximately 80:20.

This is the longest interval between gigs since the band first formed. The question in everyone else's mind is whether the Manics' year of solo projects (the symphonic pop of James Dean Bradfield's effort, the low-key, lo-fi and chaotic Nicky Wire's Secret Society) has left the members drained or creatively rejuvenated. It's a question Bradfield anticipates, promising us that the Manics will be back in 2007 "tighter, more vicious, more fucking angry".

Charging straight into a rusty but rousing "You Love Us" - as much a defiantly screw-you song as it ever was - appears to be a statement of intent. The new album, Wire has told audiences at his solo shows, will be their Appetite For Destruction. Every time the Manics release a melodious, listener-friendly record, they react by going the other way and making an anti-social, anti-populist one. Will their eighth studio album, following on the heels of the gentle Lifeblood, be abrasive and aggressive?

On tonight's evidence, perhaps not. Due in the spring, Send Away The Tigers is trailed with two sneak previews. "I'm Just A Patsy" paraphrases T Rex, namechecks Lee Harvey Oswald and sounds a bit like, er, Oasis. "Autumn Song" is another of the heroic elegies in which the Manics have intermittently specialised. Beyond that, after one hearing, it's too early to judge.

They're looking fresh. After the pink suit he favoured for the solo gigs, Nicky Wire is back in militaria and maquillage, and spends much of the gig either leaping to half of his not-inconsiderable height or dropping to his knees. Bradfield himself is black-shirted tonight, but partially unbuttons it. Sean Moore shows precisely zero signs of ageing.

Once they hit their stride, they sound supreme. As his solo album reminded us, Bradfield's is one of Britain's great rock voices: one part Bruce Springsteen, one part Dion DiMucci. Aside from "You Stole The Sun From My Heart", tossed in to please the Oasis lads, the short, sharp 45-minute set visits some of the band's most emotional material ("From Despair To Where" and "Enola/Alone") and also their most political ("Motorcycle Emptiness", "Yes", "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next"). They end, inevitably, with "A Design For Life", their hymn to working class literacy.

Playing before such a partisan crowd, directly before the headline act, is something of a short straw, but The Magic Numbers could charm the pants off a priest. Good friends of mine can't understand my love for the Stodart and Gannon siblings (I'd named Those The Brokes among my albums of the year). The word winsome may only be used pejoratively nowadays, but that's exactly what The Magic Numbers are: winsome.

There's something wonderfully untutored about them: the fact that Angela Gannon's co-vocal replies to Romeo Stodart's lead are frail and occasionally off-key lends them a rare plaintiveness. Angela also plays kiddie instruments such as the melodica and the wood blocks, nonchalantly throwing them backwards over her head when she's done with them. They aren't completely unchanged after two years on the treadmill, though. For one thing, they've lost weight. For another, their clothes look more expensive.

Sonically, however, they haven't progressed one inch. And that is something to cherish. And new tracks ("This Is A Song", "Take A Chance"), just like older ones ("I See You/You See Me", "Love's A Game"), feel like a train slowly climbing up a hill, reaching a peak then speeding downhill: if they don't grab you when they start, they will by the end. "Forever Lost" raises wild applause even from this tough crowd.

The biggest cheer, however, comes when Romeo mentions the Manics. Oh well : you winsome, you lose some.