Concert Review: Massive Attack, May 9th, Sound Academy

Image courtesy B. Mayer’s Flickr Photostream, licensed under Creative Commons. Taken during “Teardrop” during Massive Attack’s Melbourne, Australia show. It looked pretty much the same in Toronto.

You know, I’d never seen the same band in quick succession during a single tour before this weekend. The list of bands I’d even consider going to two shows in, say, the same weekend is pretty short.

But Massive Attack is at the top of that list, so after attending Friday’s Massive Attack show at Sound Academy with a select few members of the Panic Manual family, I ventured to Sound Academy again on Sunday, alone, to see my favourite band of the past 12 years or so for the second time in three days as a kind of pre-30th birthday present to myself.

Before I give my thoughts, you’d best read Ricky’s review of Friday’s show first. Look at the set list he gives for sure, because it was the same on Sunday. And now, since I’m not very into paragraphs today and can’t really organize my thoughts coherently after two late night shows in three days (I am about to turn 30, after all), here’s some loosely connected observations and opinions of Massive Attack weekend:

– Everything Ricky says about how bad Sound Academy is is true. I’d actually never been to this venue before, and it’s everything Ricky’s frequent bitching about it says it is. The sound system is good, and at least on Sunday the fire alarm didn’t go off repeatedly like it did Friday. But it’s an awful venue.

– I personally think Ricky’s 4-rating of Friday’s show was generous. I felt for whatever reason the band didn’t really hit their stride until “Angel,” which was only two songs from the encore break. Considering my sky-high expectations going in I probably would’ve given it a 3.

– That said, Sunday’s show seemed a lot tighter for two reasons: Martina Topley-Bird was better, and Robert Del Naja (aka 3D) was more engaged early on. Even during tunes he wasn’t singing, 3D was dancing, moving around the stage like the de facto frontman/conductor that he is, and was generally a lot more lively than on Friday. I still found there was a lull in the middle of the set before the band exploded into “Angel,” but it didn’t encompass the whole first half of the show like it did on Friday night.

– I fully believe that Massive Attack playing “Angel” is perhaps the greatest concert experience I have had and will ever have. Horace Andy just kills this song live. The way this dark, brooding tune builds and how loud the guitar riff comes in and hits you full force…it’s magic, it really is. They could play this song at the beginning, middle and end of their set and I would love it every time.

– Another of my fondest concert memories is seeing Massive Attack play “Teardrop” live in 2006 at Coachella, with Sarah Jay doing vocals. I felt so ecstatic during this song I thought I was going to pass out. The version they do now with Martina Topley-Bird is good, but not as good. The melody they play is slightly different, and it’s much more stripped down. Whether they play it this way to tailor it to Topley-Bird’s vocals, which are substantially different than Jay’s, or to differentiate it from the studio version, which is now best known as the theme song to the TV series House, I couldn’t say.

– In any case, Topley-Bird was a lot better on Sunday. She appeared to be going through the motions a little on Friday, especially during her solo set. This may have been due in part to a largely disinterested crowd, or possibly to the almost half-hour delay in set times; on Friday we arrived at about 9:45, and it seemed as though few were paying attention even though she was still three or four songs from finishing. On Sunday I arrived at 9:15 with Topley-Bird a song or two into her set; the crowd was smaller, but more interested, and her tidy set finished at 9:45, meaning that Massive Attack got on at a more friendly 10:15 pm on Sunday, instead of the 10:45 start that had the crowd grumbling on Friday. Topley-Bird has a kind of Owen Pallett/Final Fantasy thing going on where she loops her own voice with an on-stage sampler, forming her own backing track as she goes. Several of her songs seemed quite good on Sunday, whereas she really didn’t catch my attention at all on Friday.

– Like a lot of fans, I find Massive Attack’s back catalogue maddeningly uneven, and though I consider large parts of Blue Lines (1991) and Mezzanine (1998) to be some of the most brilliant music I’ve ever known, Protection (1994) and 100th Window (2003) are largely mediocre. Massive Attack’s setlist seems to reflects this opinion: of the nine songs they played from these four albums, only one each are from Protection (“Karmacoma”) and 100th Window (“Future Proof”).

– Meanwhile, I like a lot of tunes from Massive Attack’s newest, Heligoland. I really do. “Girl I Love You” is a good vehicle for Horace Andy’s vocals (Horace’s all-too-rare appearances on stage were among the highlights of both shows), both of the songs with Topley-Bird on vocals came across well (particularly on Sunday), and “Atlas Air” becomes an epic tune of sound and lights in a live setting.

– However, I absolutely can’t stand the song “Splitting the Atom.” The only good thing about this song is that it alows Topley-Bird, Horace Andy, 3D, and Daddy G to all be on stage contributing at once. But it’s a dreary, uninteresting tune, and both nights when the band played it as the first tune of their four-song encore I thought it sucked all the life out of the room.

– As Ricky said in his review, Deborah Miller’s amazing pipes have really made “Safe from Harm” and “Unfinished Sympathy” her own. She really cranked up the sex appeal on Sunday for “Unfinished Sympathy,” throwing a few intense “come hither” looks with beckoning hand gestures at the crowd.

– As Ricky also said, Daddy G definitely comes off as the coolest guy in the room every time he’s on stage.

– Massive Attack’s light show is great at times, and a bit distracting at others. Bars of LED lights extending the length of the stage flash at various times and occasionally show words and messages. Mostly it’s used to great effect (like during “Teardrop” when it shows great big eyes, as pictured above from their Melbourne show from earlier in the year), but it also causes some people to try and take a picture every time the backdrop changes, i.e. at least once or twice every song. This is annoying, and is particularly silly when the cameras are mostly cheap digitals or cell phone cameras that aren’t good enough to make out any detail beyond “blurry silhouettes in front of a big light.”

– In one song, the backdrop listed things you could buy for various amounts of money, i.e. how much a children’s AIDS clinic cost per week in Ghana vs. how much a British MP claimed for gardening during the 2009 expenses scandal, how much the GDP of Haiti is vs. the bonuses Goldman Sachs handed out last year, etc. The most obvious response to this is to point out how much we all spent on Massive Attack tickets (almost $60 a pop including service charges and taxes) vs. how much all in attendance could’ve, say, donated to the United Way or something, but let’s not go there.

– Between most songs, various anti-war and activist quotes, mostly from Howard Zinn, appeared on the backdrop. These messages led my companion on Friday, a casual Massive Attack fan at best, to suggest that it was pretentious. As a hardcore Massive Attack fan, I have no defense for this, and find it pointless to even try: Massive Attack are pretentious as hell. This has only gotten worse over the years.

All that said, my Massive Attack weekend was thoroughly satisfying. Maybe it didn’t quite meet my exceedingly high expectations, but that would’ve been hard to do. Massive Attack’s staying power as one of the best and most influential electronic acts of the last 20 years is amazing, and this nigh-legendary status is well represented by their live show. See it if you can.

Posted on by Brian in Concerts