Monday 4 March 2019

Massive Attack @ Steel Yard, Filton, Bristol - 2 March 2019

Just occasionally I widen the DEoL brief to include music, and last Saturday's event, the final date on Massive Attack's recent tour, was so momentous I had to commit some thoughts to the ether.

The band were touring to mark the twentieth anniversary of third album 'Mezzanine,' the darkest of their works, mostly unencumbered with anything as instantly recognisable as, say, 'Unfinished Sympathy' from their first album, or 'Protection' from their second. It was and remains a difficult and dense album, and the decision to restrict the set largely to extended and reformed versions of the tracks on 'Mezzanine' initially appeared brave and possibly foolhardy.

MA made it clear, in the face of criticism earlier on in the tour, bemoaning the lack of hits being played, that this was most certainly not an evening to hear their most popular tunes, and over the course of the ninety plus minute set, you could see why. Indeed MA member Robert Del Naja described the live concept in interview as the band's “own personalised nostalgia nightmare head trip.”

The second of two dates at Bristol to close off their European tour (and the first appearance in their home town since 2016's The Downs Festival), the site chosen was a disused airfield in the suburb of Filton, on which a huge temporary arena - dubbed Steel Yard - had been erected. Audience wise there was a rather end of term feel, bolstered by some great DJing in lieu of any traditional support act. One supposes that the MA team signed off on a lot of the evening's pre gig detail (the bus transfer to and from the City centre was a triumph of polished organisation and a glowing example of how not to treat punters like cattle), and it became obvious that what tonight was about was anything but the usual corporate festival nonsense - there was an atmosphere in the DJ tents which the band would probably have enjoyed being a part of.

Steel Yard in Filton, Bristol
The wave of guitar feedback on stage announcing MA's arrival deceived those expecting a darker opening, by transforming into a gentle-ish version of The Velvet Underground's 'I Found a Reason.' It was one of several covers of songs, the originals of which had been used as samples on 'Mezzanine', demonstrating MA's proto punk as well as dub heritage; later thrashy and faithful versions of The Cure's '10:15 on a  Saturday Night,' Bauhaus's 'Bela Lugosi's Dead' and particularly John Foxx-era Ultravox's 'Rockwrok' were surprisingly upbeat highlights in a set which gradually enveloped the audience in waves of tension and paranoia.

It became obvious from the start that the boys in the band had no intention of emerging from the shadows. Often shrouded in almost darkness, MA let the pictures tell the story, courtesy of Adam Curtis's stunning if polemic visuals, charting a history of the times in which 'Mezzanine' was created, and the political and cultural period between then and now. Album guests Horace Andy and Liz Fraser were given the appropriate reverence, being allowed front and centre position (although Fraser sang 'Black Milk' from the back of the stage).

The band have worked with Curtis before - a 2013 project combining 'live music with cinema and journalism' - but for the 'Mezzanine' show his visuals hold sway, with the band's driving pulse underscoring the conclusions the audience are invited to make from the assembly of images. And it's Curtis's 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation - which suggested the creation of a fake world perpetrated by politicians and big business - that points to what's really going on here. MA are telling us that in the twenty and a bit years since 'Mezzanine' was released they have provided a lasting soundtrack for that period, and, as they point out, inertia creeps: themes of mass surveillance, data mining and conspiracy persist; we're shown huge images including a dead eyed Saddam Hussein passing a line of children, replaced by the visages of Putin and Trump (booed by some of the audience, who in their collective pantomime response to a cartoon villain kind of missed the point); the awful human cost of the Iraq war and the perma grinning face of Tony Blair; mile high emblazoned words uttered around the world - including our own 'Strong and Stable' - offered by Governments desperate to convince the populace that they remain in control; Pauline Boty, the unsung founder of British pop art; and bizarre footage of the Queen and Diana, Princess of Wales running to catch the wedding carriage of civil list sponge Sarah Ferguson in some arcane royal ritual. None of this is subtle but my goodness it makes you angry.

Liz Fraser onstage with Massive Attack
And all the while it's the beat - the constant urgent throb of the bass and the wash of background sound, that propels the darkest parts of 'Mezzanine' forward from history into this cavernous arena; Andy's keening voice punctuating the rising tumult of 'Angel'; Del Naja and Grant Marshall's disjointed observations in the sinuous 'Risingson,' and Fraser's pure tones ushering in the closing extended assault of 'Group Four.'

One of Curtis's images - Bowie kissing a fan - may indeed be a nod to the popularly held suggestion that the world has gone to hell in a handcart since the dame's passing - well someone's responsible, that's for sure, and MA want you to know it. But the band's final message, writ large on screen as their unique version of an encore, implores the audience to go out there and create a better tomorrow: 'Now It's Your World' reads the sign. But from what we've heard or seen, even if we're inspired to take it, MA suggest, it certainly won't be easy.

The final words on the evening are not mine or the band's - they are from Adam Curtis, and although he wasn't writing about the gig, he may as well have been: “A pleasure dome that makes us feel safe from the endless wars outside, and plays back stories both of dreams of glory and the fear of others. But in that safe world suspicion and distrust is spreading — like a virus. The air is growing stale. Everyone sees conspiracies everywhere. But maybe suspicion is control?”

A stunning event that left me completely hollowed out, it'll be hard to top this in 2019.

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