Nicky Wire & The Secret Society Band - Hay-on-Wye Festival FilmFour Cinema, 05-06-06.
"Plenty of you have been to James's gigs." Nervous laugh. "Well, this is gonna be a lot rougher." The tall guy hunched over the mic stand (still daddy-long-legs gangly, even with a touch of the middle-aged spread, and sporting a salmon-pink linen suit and a dyed-ginger moptop) puts down his wine glass, fiddles with his acoustic guitar in a manner that suggests the Dutch courage is pretty badly needed, and launches into the first song, a pretty agreeable slice of mid-tempo noise called "Withdraw - Retreat."
It's weird, this. Not just the fact that this gig's taking place in a cinema at the Hay-on-Wye- literature festival, that there are ushers in high-vis jackets furiously whispering "sit down!" at over-excited audience members, or even that there are almost as many graying heads and cardis as leopard-printed twentysomethings in the crowd. It feels a bit like watching one of your mates get up at the open mic night down your local for the first time, hoping he isn't going to cock it up or embarrass himself too much. So - perhaps unsurprisingly, in the light of Nicky's previous attempts at lead vocals - there's a palpable sense of relief when the music turns out to be Not That Bad Actually. A barely-recognisable snippet of "From Despair To Where," forms the intro to "Break My Heart Slowly", which is all a bit Velvet Underground, and then another track, "Dying Breeds", whose despair-and-defiance lyrics provide tonight's first hint of real Manics spirit. It's going okay. Perhaps our mate at the microphone isn't going to fuck it up too badly after all.
And then, something happens. Perhaps it's the booze. Perhaps it's the screams from the front row - who, let's face it, would shout and dance their arses off if he came onstage and farted in a jar. Either way, the lanky bloke in the pink suit suddenly remembers that he's Nicky Wire. Yeah, that's right. He might be playing to 200 people in a tent, but he's still a rock star. The eyes light up. And before we know it, he's mauling his guitar, stamping feet and striking poses, and laying into everyone from David Cameron ("Wales was a horrible place to live under the Tories it was unliveable") to Embrace ("Chris Martin has done some wonderful things for charity, but giving Embrace a career wasn't one of them") and Snow Patrol ("Cunts!"). There's a riotous, thrashed-through cover of "Roadrunner", a couple more snatches of Manics favourites - including, amazingly, "Condemnded To Rock & Roll" - and plenty of forgotten guitar chords and rockstar poses. And, most surprisingly of all, the songs aren't just Not Bad; there are flashes of noise-punk brilliance, and when Nicky gets up the confidence to really project his voice, he sounds oddly like Lou Reed. Which is not too unpleasant at all.
Chaos is the order of the day, though, and by the time "I Killed The Zeitgest" rattles to a close, the audience is on its feet, and the Wire is on the floor somewhere in front of the stage. Then he's leaping around waving a mic stand in the air. Then he's gone, having proved there's plenty of life (and bile) in him yet. Roll on the next Manics album. And hell, if that one doesn't work out, Nicky's always got a career in stand-up comedy.
Withdraw - Retreat
See Nicky performing The Shining Path here