Near the end of their first New York show in 10 years, at Webster Hall on October 7th, singer-guitarist James Dean Bradfield of the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers hit the plaintive opening lick of the Small Faces’ 1966 British hit “All or Nothing,” leading the rest of his group into a verse and chorus of that mod-soul classic — a song about giving without quitting — before veering into the Manics’ own 1990 Molotov cocktail “Motown Junk.” You can count the number of times the Manics have played New York on one hand; this was the biggest room I’ve seen them in here. But Bradfield, drummer Sean Moore and bassist Nicky Wire, traveling with a second guitarist and a keyboard player, ran through the whole of their history in 90 minutes — a greatest-hits set anywhere across the Atlantic, a long list of shots in the dark in the U.S. — like still-hungry animals with conquerors’ pride. There was no encore but, as Bradfield told the ecstatic faithful on the Webster floor, “That doesn’t mean we don’t love you from the bottom of our filthy Welsh hearts.”
The Manics opened with the take-off roar of “Motorcycle Emptiness” from their 1992 debut album, Generation Terrorists; zigzagged between “La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh)” from 1993’s Gold to the Soul and the recent bravura of 2007’s “Send Away the Tigers”; and lit a few sticks of rough-pop dynamite from the new Journal for Plague Lovers, which features lyrics left with the band by guitarist Richey Edwards before his still-unsolved 1995 disappearance.
Much was made, in the beginning, of the original quartet’s desire to make an insurrection rock that was part Guns n’ Roses, part Public Enemy. But what came through in the songwriting and performance at Webster Hall was how effectively the Manics updated the anthemic romanticism of early Seventies British glam-rock — Slade, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople — especially in the sing-along choruses of “The Everlasting,” “A Design for Life” and the 1998 mouthful “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next.” And Bradfield’s voice is, for all of the U.K. hits, an underrated wonder, a big grainy bray with Freddie Mercury-like accuracy in the high-drama registers.
Since the Manics haven’t been in New York since a 1999 show at the Bowery Ballroom (and before that played in virtual living rooms such as CBGB and Wetlands), it’s easy to forget how much pleasure the Manics take in their work on stage: Bradfield’s backward skipping, like Chuck Berry’s duckwalk in reverse; the tall Wire’s spindly strut and scissor kicks. They apparently plan to have more here. Backstage after the show, Wire, still wearing his glittering black-and-gold eyeliner, said the Manics were so delighted with the response on this three-week North America tour — they finish in Boston tonight — that they plan to come back soon and more often. It’s about time.