|Massive Attack at the Greek Theatre Saturday night|
November 6, 2010
@ The Greek Theatre, Berkeley
If Massive Attack
has a musical formula, it's one that's built around lulling you into a false sense of relaxed security, then turning the tables and plunging you into a nightmarish dystopia. The music is slow, creeping, subtle, dark, but ultimately -- for all its dream-like qualities -- it usually ends up being a cold harsh slap of reality.
Tonight, the Bristol, UK collective applies the same formula to its entire set. Two songs in, when Martina Topley-Bird comes out to perform "Babel," the shadows are already present, but not to a degree that's disturbing the Rave Move 101 blissed-out dancers, or the abundance of weed-smokers currently nodding their heads along faithfully.
It's when the unmistakable vocals of reggae legend Horace Andy
(introduced by Robert '3-D' Del Naja as "the original original, of all originals") start ringing around this packed-to-capacity-arena for the mesmerizing "Risingson," that this set takes a turn for the truly bleak.
The gigantic electronic screen at the back of the stage that has, so far, looked like some pretty window dressing suddenly starts spitting huge, horrifying statistics at us: "Number of water bottles dumped in Mexico every day: 23,000,000"; "Number of drug war deaths in Mexico in the last three years: 22,000"; "Number of Americans Without Health Insurance: 46,300,000"; "Cost of UK military spending in 2006: $52,200,000,000"; "Number of days prisoners may be held without charge... Canada 1... Russia 5... France 6... USA Indefinitely..."
And on it goes.
If you weren't sober ten minutes ago, you probably are now. And unusually, Massive Attack doesn't use this barrage of information to intensify its music; you sense that the members want the music to merely intensify the horror of the numbers writ large in front of you. What starts as a big excuse to sit in a beautiful arena backed by gorgeous views on a crisp, clear November night and get stoned suddenly turns into a forum for righteous indignation. It's a masterstroke for the band and extraordinarily powerful for the viewer (though it's worth noting that when the disgracefully weak sentence
handed down to Johannes Mehserle on Friday flashes up on screen, it is greeted with discomfort, rather than rage -- guess we're in the wrong part of the East Bay right now).
In addition to the jaw-dropping lightshow, musically the members of Massive Attack are absolutely flawless tonight as well; intermingling electronics and beats with live drums, guitar, and bass when it suits them, and using the talents of Topley-Bird, Andy, and, later in the set, Deborah Miller, to amazing effect. Miller's rendition of "Safe From Harm," in particular, feels utterly fresh, despite the song being nearly twenty years old (which makes us feel decidedly ancient, incidentally).
Elsewhere, "Teardrop" provides a soothing mental break, and "Angel" is so utterly disquieting, moving, and alarming that tonight it feels like a song that literally everyone on Earth should hear live at least once. It is that immense.
It's fair to say that a number of people in this arena might have bought tickets to this for old time's sake; to relive the '90s trip-hop explosion
and a band many think is past its peak. But by the end of tonight, this much is certain to all in attendance: Massive Attack is still relevant, it is still spectacularly good, intensely compelling, and very much worthy of your attention. Be sure to catch this collective next time if you missed this.
Overheard: "I heard Massive Attack were friends with Banksy and I thought 'Whatever,' but after seeing this, I think that's probably true."