POP / Live Reviews: Taxi drivers: Manic Street Preachers, Cambridge Corn Exchange

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The Independent Online
All eyes tonight are fixed on the man who is the Manic Street Preachers. Lyricist and bassist Richey James was holed up in a Roehampton hospital earlier this year, an alcoholic anorexic wearing a scar-tissue suit from years of self-abuse. The band weren't mainstream enough for his tragedy to shift units Nirvana-style. They trundled on without him and their icy, despairing turn at this year's Reading Festival was like a wake. Now Richey's back, and there's a lot resting on this tour. Maybe that's why there are so few gaps between the songs in tonight's set: they're not going to let us up for air.

The real revelation is how tight they've grown in the six weeks since Reading. No British band has evolved quite so conspicuously or triumphantly, and here they're lean and savage: numbers are segued together into slabs of noise which would trouble Metallica. (The cheesy riff which drives 'From Despair to Where' even makes you realise that only a whisker of attitude and intellect distinguishes them from Queen.)

Seeing Richey play so vigorously, it's tempting to forget that, like any addict, he won't shed his alcoholism and anorexia, or his affection for razor blades. Even if he never downs a triple whiskey or skips a month's meals or picks a Bic apart again, those sleeping ghosts crowd inside him now. Since their fitful 1991 debut album, Generation Terrorists, there was always a sense that the Manics were teetering on the brink of personal apocalypse. Delivered from that brink, there's more urgency about them now, as though they're playing over a trap-door which could spring open at any moment.

The white-hot roar of the sweeping 'Motorcycle Emptiness' is inevitably diminished by a live reading, but it remains nothing less than epiphanic, a testament to their recovery. And so what if the chorus you think James Dean Bradfield is singing ('I'm dying of loneliness') is far more resonant than the real one ('Under neon loneliness') - isn't great pop founded on such accidental pleasures?

There's a pleasing whiff of perversity about their decision to tackle Nirvana's 'Penny Royal Tea', given that Richey's place beside Kurt Cobain in the rock 'n' roll graveyard was prematurely plotted.

It's this sense of defiant, unconditional victory which they leave us with, augmented by Robert De Niro's Taxi Driver soliloquy crackling over the PA in lieu of an encore. For here is a band who could not take it any more, a band who stood up against the scum, the filth, the screwheads, the dopers, the pussies. Here is . . .

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