Live at Manchester University, in support of Manzanera/801's Listen Now release, was recorded a year after the impeccable 801 Live. Though not as aggressive or vital as its predecessor, the Manchester concert is solid, with Paul Thompson (drums) and Bill MacCormick (bass) turning in performances beyond the call of duty. Still, its comparison with 801 Live can't be helped. The lineup is dramatically different on Manchester and, in some ways, inferior considering the virtuosity displayed on 801 Live. Although the repertoire overlaps, 801 Live is rooted in progressive rock while Manchester exhibits a pop approach. The handful of tunes from Listen Now are good, but their simple, repetitive structures weaken Manchester's overall impact. And without Brian Eno, the material lacks the atmospheric quality that comes hand in hand with his presence.
The most glaring weakness on the Manchester recording lies in the absence of Eno's lead vocals. Eno has a unique voice, and it's almost painful to hear Simon Ainley and the others attempt to substitute on "Miss Shapiro," "You Really Got Me," and the opener, "TNK." Ainley's vocal presentation lacks confidence and smoothness; he doesn't' do justice to Eno's wonderful lyrics on "Miss Shapiro," and he fails to bring out the groovy nuances that Eno's voice instilled in "You Really Got Me." On "Out of the Blue," Ainley can't replicate the familiar, original Bryan Ferry vocal; however, the song is arguably the strongest on the disc. The performance is energetic, Andy Mackay guests on oboe, and MacCormick's pronounced basslines are more involved than John Gustafson's on Roxy Music's studio original.
Thompson has the hardest act to follow, as Simon Phillips' tight drum work on 801 Live is simply breathless. Still, Thompson is the standout on Live at Manchester. He plays clean and fast and gets a crisp, full-bodied sound from his instrument; his style simply isn't as offbeat or complex as Phillips'. Manzanera's work is solid as well. He injects a groove-laced rhythm to the opening of "Listen Now" and performs his instrumental signature standard, "Diamond Head" (much in the same vein as the 801 Live rendition). Live at Manchester features guests Andy Mackay, Lol Crème, and Kevin Godley on several tracks. The CD is part of Expression Records' attempt to unveil Manzanera's previously unreleased recordings, including re-released projects with bonus tracks.