Safe From Harm
Last night a dream came true when I got to finally see one of my favorite bands ever, the mighty Massive Attack. If you're interested in labels, the Bristol, England collective singlehandedly invented "trip hop"; but more importantly, they've made some of the most intoxicating music of the last twenty years: a crawling, highly seductive amalgamation of blunted hip hop beats, doped-out urban reggae, dark soul, and eerie sound design. Their first three albums, Blue Lines, Protection and Mezzanine, are stone-cold classics, and have soundtracked a big chunk of my life in New York.
Massive Attack are in town for a three-night stand at Roseland (the third and last show is tonight) and I would have happily paid the $50 or whatever for a ticket, but the lovely Claudia came to the rescue once again, and, thanks to a connection in the Massive Attack crew, she scored us not only free tickets, but all-access, after-show passes. Weeeee!
Touring America for the first time in eight years, core Massive Attack members Robert Del Naja (aka 3D) and Daddy G are joined by none other than Liz Frazier, who contributed some of Mezzanine's most memorable vocal performances (and who also happens to be the voice of Cocteau Twins) and the legendary reggae singer and long-standing MA collaborator Horace Andy. This was going to be good...
Thanks to our alcoholic dawdling, Claudia and I unfortunately arrived at the venue about 15 minutes late and Massive Attack were already onstage when we hustled in. We snaked our way up toward the front as quickly as possible and found a spot (thanks, Claud!)...and there they were before us, backlit in a haze of in pot smoke: the legendary Massive Attack. It's impossible to describe their music or how it has affected me (and I'll certainly never do a good job of it here) but I have to say that beholding the mighty Bristol posse up onstage together was pretty overwhelming.
The wiry, shadow-boxing 3D/Del Naja fronted the band for most of the show, often processing his paranoid, whispery rasps through an effects box which he manipulated on a stand next to his mic. Meanwhile, the tall, lanky, bedreaded Daddy G stood to his left, delivering those chilly, downbeat raps in his menacing monotone.
A tiny, almost fragile-looking Liz Frazier walked onstage for "Teardrop" and the crowd went wild as her lilting, delicate voice filled the air. This is a voice I've been listening to for almost 15 years. It was incredible to hear it in person. Wow. She came out at other points during the show to sing all her other Mezzanine cameos as well.
It was equally humbling to see and hear the beloved Horace Andy Hinds (no relation!); dancing gently from side to side like the cuddly Rastafarian uncle you never had, he lent his inimitable croon to "Angel," "Man Next Door" and "Hymn of the Big Wheel" and all those other classics. It's impossible to imagine those songs sung by anyone but the man himself. He owns them.
(I was only a little disappointed that they didn't save "Hymn" for the very last song of the show; it would have been a beautiful touch, a really poignant way to end the night. But I'm not complaining!)
Tricky didn't come along for this excursion but the band performed an excellent "Karmacoma" anyway, with Daddy G on the mic. It gives me chills just to think about it. A guest singer named Deborah (didn't catch her last name) walked out periodically to nearly steal the show by singing the living hell out of set highlights like "Unfinished Sympathy" and "Safe From Harm." When the band started "Sympathy" I found myself getting a little choked up -- I never thought I'd hear it in person. What a song. The show ended with a brutal, hypnotic rendering of "Mezzanine/Group Four," which got faster and faster at the end, capping the night with a blinding crescendo.
The grooves were titanic. The bass was enormous. It throbbed and shook the very foundations of Roseland and pushed the clouds of ganja smoke through the air. Aside from the bassist, there were also a guitarist, a keyboardist and two drummers onstage. I found out later that no loops or sequencing were used in the show; the stage right drummer played a kit made up largely of pads that triggered many of the electronic sounds and samples and the keyboard player took care of the rest.
The concert alone would have been enough to make for a brilliant evening but as luck would have it, our yellow wristbands gave Claudia and I access to the "VIP" area and, ultimately, backstage, where a Massive Attack party was going down after the show. Suddenly we found ourselves in the same room with all these legendary musicians. Eeek!
Liz Frazier herself was standing arm's length away but neither Claudia nor I could think of anything to say to her. I suppose I could have gushed, "your voice is one of my favorite instruments in the whole world," but I'd already used that one on Horace Andy, who spent most of the night leaning against the wall in a blissed out ganja haze, smiling benevolently on the proceedings. I gave him a hug and told him we share the same name (something I've always wanted to do!). But he informed me that the "Andy" part was just a stage name (damn!). Still, he seemed really pleased by the connection. What a cool guy! What a voice!
I told the bassist how awesome his playing was and he said something self-deprecating like "Wow, thanks, I didn't think anyone paid attention to the bass player!" Such humility! I mean, in Massive Attack, the bass is everything. Del Naja, on the other hand, made a point to approach me, shake my hand and thank me for being there. I didn't know what to say! How do you tell someone their music has changed your life when they do that? Ultimately we were all just a bunch of people hanging out having drinks.
The party then moved to the godawful Lotus on 14th Street, where a vodka tonic sets you back $11. But luckily Claudia and I somehow got a free first round (including an abandoned mango martini courtesy of 3D). We talked to the guitarist awhile and he confessed that he was really surprised -- pleasantly, but still surprised -- to see people who look like Claudia and I at a Massive Attack gig. He seemed genuinely amazed that we were into the music: "how did YOU guys wind up here?!" I, in turn, was surprised to hear him say that. Massive Attack's music appeals to alot of different kinds of people.
He told me how lucky I am to live in New York ("I'm from Bristol, for god's sake!"). It's so odd to hear that -- I've never been to Bristol but in my mind's eye, it's one of the coolest places on earth. Any town that could give birth to Massive Attack has got to be almost magical.
If you haven't already, fortify yourself with this otherworldly music here.
Some more of my ramblings about this Massive Attack here.