To be honest, you'd be hard pressed to find two more differing venues than the O2 Arena and The 100 club. An insanely huge corporate hanger and an ex-jazz club constantly on the edge of extinction aren't often going to host the same band. But such is the prerogative of bands such as the Manics and it seems an apt metaphor for a band shedding the stadium anthems for a more folky direction. At the back end of 2011, with a career spanning singles collection under the belt and the same collection belted out of the speakers at the aforementioned O2, the rumours were largely that we'd seen the back of the boys from Blackwood for a while. But, less than two years later, they arrive on stage at The 100 Club with a new album, attitude and another new direction.
It would be pointless to add to the piles of reviews lamenting that Wire, Bradfield, Moore and (in absentia) Edwards are not 18 any more. That particular stick with which people used to beat the Manics seems itself to be a bit old and tired now and even the band seem aware of this. At one point, James laments that the stage is too small and cramped for him to perform his trademark spinning-on-one-leg move without destroying half the drum kit. A member of the audience (alright, me) urges him to give it a go. "Let's be grown up about it", James flashes back. That's a pretty good summary of where we're headed with the new record.
The set lasts for just over an hour and includes a mix of classics and new songs from upcoming eleventh album Rewind the Film. As the title suggests, the songs are drawn from their experiences growing up, but it's also an album that begins to tackle the trickiest of subjects for rock musicians: middle age. Previously the band have kicked against this, but here they begin to examine what this strange new part of life is really going to mean. The album features only one appearance by an electric guitar but the barbed lyricism remains, in particular on This Sullen Welsh Heart, which James performs solo tonight. Anthem for a Lost Cause is not nearly as defeatist as the title would suggest and Show Me The Wonder, with its video set in a workingman's club, harks back to growing up with lines like "We may write in English / But our truth remains in Wales".
Tonight, James is in an occasionally chatty mood, telling the audience the stories behind the new songs and lamenting the fact that the band had not been able to go drinking with Richard Hawley, who takes the main vocal credit on the new album's title track: "It would've got fucking messy". In Hawley's absence James fills in, quipping that he has to "man up" and drop his voice by an octave or two.
It's a strange atmosphere, though. The audience is a mix of journalists, PR people and dementedly excited competition winners. As a result, the leopard print and feather boas are a little thinner on the ground than one might expect at any of the band's upcoming tour shows. Nicky Wire seems not to be enjoying the experience too much, barely acknowledging the audience at any point, performing only the occasional bounce and leaving the stage whilst James is still wishing the appreciative masses goodnight.
It could be said that, a few years back, the Manics started writing songs for stadium shows. But here, up close and under the low ceiling of The 100 Club, it's clear to all why the Manics are still a force to be reckoned with on the live circuit. James is a formidable guitarist and the solos from You Love Us, Motorcycle Emptiness and Your Love Alone Is Not Enough have lost none of their urgency. He may not be able to spin round on one leg, but to watch him play guitar for any length of time at such close quarters is a jaw dropping experience.
As the evening finishes with A Design for Life, which is dutifully shouted like the anthem for a generation it is, it's clear that the Manics may have grown into growing up, but can still inspire old and new fans in equal measure.
Rewind the Film is released next Monday, 16th September.