The Critics: Bevanites and butt-heads

Rock; Manic Street Preachers Kettering Arena Simply Red Lyceum
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The Independent Culture
The one lethal faux pas in pop is to take yourself too seriously. Musicians, normally, aren't decent philosophers. But the Preachers want to be heard, and have been by quite a few million. Like Meat Loaf, they are basically mega-selling balladeers with bizarre lyrics and catchy anthems.

The title of the new album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, is a quote from Aneurin Bevan, and lyrics include lines from RS Thomas; one track is about Hillsborough. Now their mild metal has turned platinum and someone has deigned to make a TV documentary about them - to be shown on Wednesday (BBC2) - the Manics are clearly in preaching mood.

Launching their British tour at Kettering Arena on Tuesday, the band sounded like something between Guns'N'Roses goths and Queen crusaders. Bursting between a lattice of lights, James Dean Bradfield brought the four-piece on stage, and immediately launched into old-fashioned, thrashing rock and roll. "The Everlasting", the first track on the new album, was beaten out as loving admirers moshed, mouthing lyrics lost beneath guitars: "In the beginning when we were winning, when our smiles were genuine, in the beginning when we were winning."

Old numbers - "Kevin Carter" and "Everything Must Go" - joined tracks from the new album. Meanwhile, Bradfield pirouetted, and his legs scissored and star-fished; impressively, not once did he snag himself on a lead and fall headlong. The Welsh dragon, proudly hanging behind the band, looked as if it was breathing fire, such was the steam rising from the front, where eager fans played air guitar and bounced torsos.

The trouble is that stadium rock into gym hall does not go. Without festival rain to damp down the sound, you could only hear the chord changes. Kettering's council rather immodestly baptised their venue an "arena"; but a huge basketball clock hung on the breeze-blocks, and signs warned that you couldn't come in unless you wore white-soled plimsolls. To those dancing, it must have felt like skipping through a giant game of hopscotch while trying to avoid the masking-tape of Badminton Court One.

But the Manics are a hard band to nail, suddenly switching from mosh music to (almost) cigarette-lighter-aloft soul. An acoustic set, sandwiched between the Van Halen hymns, left Bradfield on the stage by himself, playing "My Little Empire" and "Nobody Loved You" from the new album. Gentler, more static, and - through the steely strings of his guitar - a great, sometimes falsetto, voice.

Then he was back to deliver thrash versions of the songs from This Is My Truth... Stepping out of the gym hall to where bar staff, decked out in the Brazilian colours of Holsten Pils, served up bottles of beer for fans to suck on, I realised what it all reminded me of: that scene from The Blues Brothers, where they roll up somewhere in the American Midwest to be told: "Yes sir, we all have both types of music here, country and western". In Kettering, the Preachers had two other types on show: rock and roll.

Mick Hucknall was last seen touting his freckled chest on a Mediterranean beach. On Wednesday, at the nicely intimate Lyceum in London's West End, all flesh was hidden behind black silks and beige lounge-lizard shoes. "Thank you. It's been two years. Let's check this out tonight," urged Hucknall, clicking fingers and gyrating - always gyrating - his pelvis. Knicker-hurling applause went up whenever an opening chord was struck, and arms swayed from side to side as Hucknall went through the favourites: "Air That I Breathe", "Thrill Me", "So Beautiful". It was all rather like an evangelist's meeting. The audience were hanging on Hucknall's every word, as he - mike to mouth, with the backing of gospel singers either side - expressed all our lurve and hurt.

New scenery descended half-way through the evening: red mock-satin sash curtains fell behind the drummer, and a galaxy of stars was switched on. It was enough to make some men go gooey; one stood up to jiggle, but in true British fashion, he was shouted at by those behind and told by security to sit down. Eventually, he was escorted out amid protests that he couldn't help himself; he was so moved by Mick. Others kept to rhythmic clapping and dancing in the aisles.

Indisputably, New Labour's most loyal luvvie has an exquisite voice, moving seamlessly between the reggae of "Night Nurse" and the raspy faux anger of "Infidelity". He's so professional that he even opened his new tour on the night his beloved Manchester United played a glamour match against Barcelona. His backing band were slick, taking the stage for solos when Hucknall needed a breather.

The only problem - rather a pressing one, as these concerts are being filmed for Christmas video release - was the inept "follow-spot". It kept losing Hucknall, who was sidestepped the hands of admirers as they reached out to touch the hem of the great man's silky garments.

Manic Street Preachers: Port Talbot Afan Lido, tonight; Stoke Trentham Gardens, Mon; Margate Wintergardens, Tues; Hereford Leisure Centre, Wed. All bookings: 0181 740 6288.

Simply Red: Lyceum, W1 (0870 606 3448), to Thurs.

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