XFM Winter Wonderland - Manchester Apollo - 8.12.06

XFM Manchester launched earlier in the year with promises of adding to the cities rich musical heritage, but a few short months later after the honeymoon period we're left with empty promises and the overwhelming feeling that the only thing alternative about the station is that they don't play James Blunt.

The biggest signifier of this comes with Winter Wonderland's opening act Billion Babies, a band with an average age of 12 who won the Rockschool competition ahead of thousands of entries. Ultimately the competition was more X Factor than In The City with bands required to record a cover version, in this case ACDC's "Back In Black", and perform it at the expense of their own material. Named after an Alice Cooper song its clear where this band are coming from musically and we'd have much rather heard their original material including new single "Ghost Train" than the crushing bores that were Mumm-ra and Little Man Tate, who send us into a coma for the next hour. The latter are the sort of band that the phrase "dregs of Britpop" was coined for and their Sheffield take on the Kaiser Chiefs sound makes them a band of diminishing returns, a tribute to a tribute if you like.

It takes the sheer magnificence of The Rakes to wake up the Apollo and what an awakening it was. Criminally underrated this correspondent first met the Rakes somewhat bizarrely playing alongside Neighbours Dr Karl Kennedy in some Anglo-Antipodean peace summit where the actor declared his favourite British band to be The Killers (doh). After months locked up in the studio the band return to rightly tower above the likes of Interpol and The Stills as the true heirs to Joy Division's crown. "Strasbourg", "Retreat" and "22 Grand Job" are all modern classics, still now adding extra dimensions beyond the conventional sounds of the zeitgeist and while frontman Alan Donohue is a little rusty you get the feeling he must have being doing tantric yoga while the rest of the band were laying down riffs cos he's still as lanky and nimble as ever throwing some Ian Curtis meets the Mighty Boosh style dance manoeuvres. Sadly the band don’t play "Dark Clouds", an amazing Leader of The Pack style pop song about a twisted love story which ends up in murder, based on a true story of a web of deceit based in nearby Altrincham...but alas after being one of the highlights of the night could we really ask for more?

And then back to home with that walking charity worker Badly Drawn Boy who apart from making us laugh like the insistent charity worker on the Catherine Tate Show delivers yet again another forgettable performance. With a tight 30 minute restriction on his set none of the comedy set pieces are there like thanking his goldfish's mother and the like, so the music has to do the speaking and with a collection of musicians that are more Sleeper blokes than the formidable previous band including Andy Rourke it was never going to be a home victory. Worse than that some of the newer songs have guitar riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Shadows concert and to think this was the songwriter which promised so much with "The Hour of The Bewilderbeast " and "About A Boy".

It was back to our youth with one of the highlights of the night coming from ex-Cast frontman John Power, who despite being unfairly built up by Clint Boon as a member of one of the greatest bands ever (The Las - its simply not true) delivers a short 3 song set of new material. More organic and folky than the soaring melodies of Cast, who by the look of it are his current backing band, there's a simplicity which is admirable and to be honest it puts the spotlight back on Liverpool for singer-songwriters with the likes of Liam Frost, Stephen Fretwell and BDB losing their way.

The Magic Numbers are not a great band, hell they're not even a good one, but there's something about them when you force them into a short abridged set that brings out the best of them and makes you reconsider their position. With just 30 minutes to win us over they deliver single after single, "Forever Lost", "Love Me Love You" and “Love Is A Game" all hit the spot in the same way that Dodgy did those years ago and as much as you try to deny it the sunshine rays warm up your soul on this cold winter evening. You'll never love the Magic Numbers, but for a short fix you'll begin to like them.

With James Dean Bradfield's solo album being better received than any Manics album in recent history and Nicky Wire's solo efforts being a ramshackle punk affair of Mark E Smith proportions it led some to speculate whether we'd ever see the band back on stage together, but with their first live appearance in two years it was every way bit as spectacular as you could have imagined and marks a return back to the old rock sound of "Generation Terrorists" and "Gold Against The Soul" now that Bradfield has got the Motown and Barbershop harmonies out of his system.

After an energetic romp through "You Love Us", once bait to the haters who thought they weren't 4 real, now a celebration of everything that's pure and honest in the Manics camp, they launch into the first of two new songs "I'm Just A Patsy". Within seconds it's clear they've been looking at the recent comeback of Axl Rose's Guns & Roses and thought if they can't do it why don't we just write the G'n'R's album that never was and infuse it with Nicky's love of Public Enemy like the original template they set out to do. It's one of those classic Manic's songs that on first listen stands up to the towering epic "Motorcycle Emptiness" and a riotous "Yes". The other new song of the night "Autumn Song" draws from that same line of influences.

A mixture of material followed with "Motown Junk" and "From Despair To Where" intertwined with "You Stole The Sun From My Heart" and Enola Alone" before climaxing on "Design For Life", their breakthrough anthem.

For us the Manics and The Rakes made up for tonight's lacklustre line-up, which was an A-Z of everything that's wrong with modern music and with Manchester music at an all time high you wonder why XFM Manchester went for something as safe and predictable as Badly Drawn Boy and Liam Frost as a showcase of local talent. Manchester beats to its own rhythm and the sooner XFM start listening to those people on the ground that truly know the scene rather that "tastemakers" sat in offices in London the better.

Alex McCann

Which was your favourite band from the Winter Wonderland?
Was Manchester represented well by Badly Drawn Boy / Liam Frost?
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