Would the Manics of old have charged the stage on a night like this, with Garda helicopters buzzing overhead to the strains of ‘Repeat’? Probably. If they tried it in Bangkok with Nicky Wire doing scissor kicks dressed like a cracked-up Hilda Ogden in front of armed Thai guards then Dublin would have been a breeze by comparison. Alas, or perhaps thankfully, they spared us the anti-monarchist sentiments and instead cracked open the nostalgia, chest-flinging the glittering ‘Stay Beautiful’ into the darkened theatre. Such a high-glamour opening deserves the right setting and if anything denotes the frame of mind the band are in, it’s the stage dressing – there is a noticeable absence of any new artwork or visual references to the latest album. Instead, the Olympia is decked out like Joan Collins’ dressing room, minus the topless butler: opulent red velvet drapes, stuffed with feather boas and featuring statues/mannequins made from the silver of crushed disco balls. It’s Gold Against the Soul-era Manics meets bordello chic.
The emphasis is oddly backward for a band that have a new album to promote. Yes, the Manics have never been ones to saturate their live shows in the new and unknown but tonight sees such a huge catalogue of old gems performed like it’s a greatest hits tour. As James spits out the ending of ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ like a human velociraptor, there’s barely time to catch a breath before they break into ‘Life Becoming A Landslide’, with the frontman taking up the ringmaster’s position as he peppers his conversation with local flavour, mourning the closure of the Mermaid Café whilst offering up crowd-pleasers such as ‘Your Love Alone’ and ‘Enola Alone’. Nicky Wire, by comparison, cuts a moody figure in the background, stalking the stage adorned in a Courtney Love t-shirt and mega shades. It’s midway through the set before he decides to speak. Like Garbot fulfilling a role, he leans over his boa-decked microphone and booms out a rather sweet Richey-related anecdote about sharing a bag of chips while wandering the streets of Dublin, before launching into a blistering version of ‘Faster’ and – bizarrely – ‘Slash and Burn’, which at once manages to transport the crowd back to an age of slammed bedroom doors and sullen teen poetry.
Tonight is obviously about trading on past glories (it’s as if they are embodying ‘This is Yesterday’) and, tellingly, they only delve into the current crop of songs twice. This drought of newer material does beg the question: are they becoming their own tribute act? But with so many memories scattered through out the set, does anyone really mind? Apparently so. With phones being checked, heads scratched, Twitters updated and a steady stream of folk wandering to the bar, it’s evident that the bulk of this gig is for the fans that faithfully remember pulling out the lyrics sheets in their fortnightly Smash Hits, the ones who remember Nicky’s anecdotes about terrible lunches in Blooms hotel, those who bought the scratchy seven inches and an eyeliner pencil on the way home. This passionate army are rewarded with what truly is the jewel of the night – the bitterly black-hearted ‘Of Walking Abortion’. As the walls shudder under the sheer force of its brutality, the ringing clarity of Richey Edwards’ words still hold their razor sharp potency.
Finishing with a rousing ‘Design For Life’, which seems to aptly capture the spirit of Ireland and its current fortunes, it now unifies the crowd as much as it used to segregate. It’s clear that the two sections of the Manics crowd will always jostle against each other, with neither one being completely satisfied with every song choice, and the band will always be subject to the dichotomy of leopard print and shaved heads. But if tonight’s performance is anything to go by, Mr. Wire may be pulling that dress out from the back of the wardrobe for one last spin.
Photos: Kieran Frost