You couldn’t help but sympathize with the event DJs at the Manchester Academy last Tuesday night. The purportedly full-strength Wu-Tang ensemble was almost an hour late, and each of the DJs’ tracks—picked from a catalogue of elementary ’90s rap—were being dropped to collective sighs and the raising of “W” symbols. It wasn’t long before the songs were being completely drowned out by incessant chants of “Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!” This should come as no surprise, as this tour is one of huge importance to the Clan’s U.K. fanbase: The Manchester Academy welcomed streams of younger disciples eager to catch these legendary Staten Island MCs for the first time, while seasoned followers suspected this could be their last opportunity to see them in full force. Outside the venue, touts were quoting extortionate sums for entry to the sold-out event as dozens of ticketless fans hysterically paced up and down Oxford Road desperate to get in. For many, this was more than a concert.
It’s a relief that the success of the tour doesn’t hinge on its “Reunited in Full” moniker, undermined by Method Man’s absence from their Glasgow show on the previous evening and then at Manchester. Still, as the clock edged painfully close to 10 p.m., RZA led his motley crew (sans Meth and the more reasonably excused Ol’ Dirty Bastard) on stage single-file to a bellowing, rapturous welcome. Inspectah Deck led the charge with a furious rendition of “Protect Ya Neck,” with Raekwon tearing through his verse as he huffed and puffed in a Manchester United soccer jersey. The crowd was ballistic, echoing every stanza passionately and word for word, brought to an overawed standstill only when GZA took center stage for some call-and-repeat interplay as “Clan in da Front” was ushered in. Perhaps aware that their lasting legacy lies in 1994’s seminal Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, the majority of the setlist consisted of anthems cherry-picked from their debut. Even Wu-Tang Forever was modestly represented, and there was no room whatsoever for any tracks from 8 Diagrams.
Fundamentally, the show played like a greatest-hits record of their halcyon days, with gems from the Clan’s solo efforts thrown in for good measure. In a well-received medley of Liquid Swords material, GZA traded verses with Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa on “Duel of the Iron Mic,” with a belligerent Ghostface Killah on “4th Chamber” and with RZA for a barnstorming rendition of the title track. It’s been over 15 years since the Clansmen penned these rhymes, but time has only amplified the significance of their message. Strictly speaking, theirs is an unorthodox form of hip-hop; a seven-strong troupe of MCs forgoing the obligation to provide hooks and choruses, placing emphasis on their chemistry, cocksure flows, and sharp, pertinent lyrics. For hip-hop fans, especially those who are starved of acts who truly deserve their position in the genre’s folklore, it was humbling to worship at the Wu-Tang altar.
A two-pronged tribute to the late O.D.B. afforded the show some gravity, signalling a slight change of pace as lighters (and more odorous lit objects) were raised alongside the omnipresent “W” symbols, but “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Got Ya Money” were hollered in raucous celebration of the man rather than in mourning. And with regard to Method Man’s unfortunate no-show, it felt as though RZA and company were trying to overcompensate for his absence. Admittedly, his flow carries some of the group’s most fondly remembered numbers, and perhaps his scheduling conflict arose at too short notice to make any major alterations to the setlist, but performing his verses and even involving the crowd in a rendition of “Method Man” seemed to highlight an issue this dedicated crowd would have willingly overlooked.
This was, however, a small hiccup in an otherwise superb evening, brought to a close with the crossover smash “Gravel Pit.” An underwhelming choice given the raw energy of everything building up to this more frolicsome curtain call, perhaps, but it was well received all the same. RZA and U-God loitered on stage barking the routine promotional spiel (about marketing plans for a new movie and floundering album sales, respectively), but even that was lapped up by the captive Manchester audience. Such was the quality of the show, leaving their diehard faithful hanging onto their every word. It was as if the lucky 2,000 in attendance had been invited into a time machine and dumped in Staten Island, 1993, a place and time when hip-hop wasn’t dead, feudal Japan enjoyed a thriving resurgence, and of course, Wu-Tang Clan wasn’t nuthing ta fuck wit.