There is something moving about being part of a crowd singing in unison, even if it is not a particularly good song. The Manics have always had a passionate dialogue with their fans. Even now, with the kohl-eyed boys and girls in plastic tiaras and cheap feather boas thinner on the ground than before, and the audience, beyond the fervent knot of diehards at the front, a little reticent, there is a constituency who know all the words to even the newest songs.
Here they are, perhaps the most singular musical presence of the past 10 years. Nicky Wire looks like Ozzy Osbourne's younger transvestite brother; James Dean Bradfield looks more lithe than in recent years; Sean Moore does not. Richey Edwards is frozen at the moment he dropped out of time, a ghostly presence in the projected backdrops. Motown Junk, the band's decade-old debut single, is dedicated to him.
What the faithful get is a marathon: 22 songs, most of the band's current greatest hits package. And what odd songs they are, welding flinty rhetoric - a sort of paella of gender politics, loosely Marxist theory, radical feminism and literary gobbets - to FM rock and soft metal solos. Yes, they sometimes reek of dilettantism. But Motorcycle Emptiness soars, Design for Life is monumental and The Everlasting is desperately lovely. Faster (a hit single that references "Plath and Pinter") remains remarkable.
When they get it wrong they are hopeless, Bradfield struggling to work a tune of any kind around lines that show a wild disregard for the natural cadences of words, or juggling with fifth-form imagery. Yet it is unlikely that many of the people here tonight would be familiar with, say, Octave Mirbeau's text The Torture Garden had band ideologue Edwards not used it to express his misery and depression prior to his disappearance. The Manics can be pompous, self-righteous, ridiculous and, worst of all, pedestrian. But what is touchingly clear tonight is that in some way they have made a difference; they have given something back. Whatever else that might be, it is not nothing.
· Manic Street Preachers play Manchester Arena (0161-930 8000) on Friday, then tour.