On Friday night, Massive Attack took to the stage at London’s O2 arena to revisit their 1998 masterpiece, Mezzanine. One of my favourite bands of all time, performing perhaps my favourite album ever? I had to be there. So did Jo, her dad John and four of my mates, Ads, Baxi, Chris and Ray.
I was very much looking forward to what, in publicising the show before tickets went on sale, Robert Del Naja had called “… a one off piece of work; our own personalised nostalgia nightmare head trip”. It was going to be a great night, one which would see Mezzanine laid bare via “custom audio reconstructed from the original samples and influences.”
That, dear reader, is exactly what we got and I was delighted.
Massive Attack being the band they are, I was never expecting them to perform a straight run through of the Mezzanine album, nor would I have wanted them to do that. I saw Leftfield do that with Leftism a couple of years back and found the whole experience, frankly, a little dull. In other words, to quote the late, great Joe Strummer on stage with the Clash, “Who wants it to sound like the record? Me neither…”
In any case, a cursory check of Instagram in the weeks since the Mezzanine XXI tour began would have clued anyone in. This was going to be a Massive Attack show featuring – shock, horror – non Massive Attack tracks; those aforementioned “influences”.
For those who wanted to hear the Mezzanine album, every single one of the tracks featured on the album was performed, but we got the added bonus of hearing Massive Attack cover the tracks which had informed the album. So, in addition to the spritely, reggae skank of Horace Andy’s ‘See A Man’s Face’, obviously voiced by the man himself, you also got the lullabyesque cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘I Found A Reason’ (sampled on ‘Risingson’) with which the band opened their show and The Cure’s ’10:15 Saturday Night’, sampled on the mighty ‘Man Next Door’.
Personally speaking, I thought it was a great way to lay an album bare and a much more interesting way of doing it than Tricky interrupting his Maxinquaye show by kicking off a stage invasion a few years ago. For the record, I wrote that I loved it, but as the years have passed, I’ve realised that I didn’t. This is why I’ve taken a couple of days to let Friday’s gig settle, before committing my thoughts here.
It would be fair to say, I think, that the gig wasn’t a total success, mainly because, although the sound in the O2 was clear as a bell, it was also distinctly underpowered. I’ve seen enough Massive Attack gigs to know how loud they can be (even outdoors), I’ve also been to the O2 enough to know that the sound in there is generally not an issue. Depeche Mode, for example have played there on more than one occasion with no issue whatsoever. Wherever the fault lay on Friday night, the oppressive atmosphere of tracks like ‘Risingson’ and ‘Inertia Creeps’ were diluted somewhat. Particularly as it felt like a large portion of the crowd were happy to have paid their £50 to stand and chat whilst they waited for ‘Teardrop’, the penultimate track as it turned out, to light up the arena.
After 16 years of Massive Attack gigs, I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst ‘Teardrop’ is undoubtedly a lovely song, and Liz Fraser sang it beautifully on Friday night, it’s a Massive Attack song for people who don’t really like Massive Attack. The rapturous acclaim with which it was greeted, compared to the audience’s almost total indifference to what felt like the rest of the album, serving only to prove to my point. WHAT WERE THESE PEOPLE DOING AT A MEZZANINE SHOW?
Much more to my liking was Fraser’s appearance, along with Winston Blissett strumming a double bass, on the oh, so dreamy ‘Black Milk’. After a slightly stop start beginning to the gig, with cover versions causing a general lack of interest in the Friday night crowd and so quite a lot of loud chat, it was this song that gave me a little moment, but really set the mood for what was to come. As it does on the album, it gave way to the prowling, nagging, ‘Mezzanine’. No words can ever do justice to how much I love this song and its reading here had me swaying my hips, almost in time to the music.
And then, oh my God, a sinister bass note dropped followed by some clattering percussion, “they aren’t, are they?” Oh yes, they are – Massive Attack are dropping a cover of Bauhaus ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. REPEAT, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
Pretty much note perfect, too. Exceptional. I was amazed when, about two minutes into it and just before the giveaway line, Ray grabbed me and exclaimed, “This is Bauhaus, isn’t it?” Ray and Chris, being a few years older than me, have a little history with the goth rockers… We were definitely on a “half floor” somewhere now. I could almost hear the ghostly voice of Mushroom, plaintively asking, “Are we a fucking punk band now?” He’d have found some sympathy in the audience (some of whom appear to have missed the fact that Massive Attack have not been the ‘Safe From Harm’ band for 25 years now), but not with me.
‘Dissolved Girl’, cannily featuring visuals with a girl lip synching to the song – there was no vocalist on stage standing in for the original singer, Sarah J – made me forget where I was for a few minutes. The eastern tinged wall of guitar that builds and builds also made me forget how rubbish I was feeling (yes, dear reader, I was fucking ill).
I haven’t really mentioned visuals, by Adam Curtis, despite the audience being forced to focus on them with the band hidden away under extremely minimal lighting. All about the music, me.
However, I know that some people have had trouble with them, the politics of the visuals, the crowd baiting Trump/Putin face off, seen to be a bit 6th form and, in the case of two dead bodies, unnecessarily distressing. It isn’t for me to tell people what they should or shouldn’t be distressed by, but having been to several of their shows, the nature of these visuals were not overly surprising to me. Massive Attack like to educate as well as entertain. Perhaps, in the absence of a soul affirming ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, some felt a lack of entertainment- but then, this wasn’t a FUCKING BLUE LINES SHOW NOW, WAS IT?
It’s not like the visuals were without their humour either, the sound being turned up as chairs flew in a nightclub was a nice touch, I thought.
Before the closing track, the boys dropped a cover of ‘Levels’ by Avicii. The flashing disco lights seemed quite ironic, given what had preceded them.
The very first time I saw Massive Attack live was, as you’ll know if you’ve been paying attention and are any cop at maths, was in 2003. The 100th Window tour came to Brixton Academy for four or five nights – I forget exactly how many now. Anyway, I went to night two, on my own – no Jo back then, not quite yet – and was left a stuttering, gibbering wreck by the closing number that night. The closing number was ‘Group Four’. Since that night, I have heard the Fraser/Del Naja duet in many different versions, including one (or, maybe, two) that felt like it was never going to end andIdon’twantittoendbutifitdoesn’tendsoonmyheadmaybeabouttoexplodeohmigod
We didn’t quite get that version on Friday, the reading here was quite leisurely, chilled out even, but powerful enough to send us all home happy and reaching for our respective Spotify apps to go and check out the tracks Massive Attack had introduced us to, if we didn’t already know them. Sound issues aside, it had been a brilliant night.