Massive Attack with Martina Topley-Bird and MNDR at The Warfield, 5/26

by Matthew Blake on May 28, 2010

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The lights wash over Massive Attack

The boys from Bristol are back.  After a seven year waiting period, studio perfectionists and UK music pioneers Massive Attack return to full form with their newest and much delayed album, Heligoland.  The second show of a two night stop in San Francisco, Massive Attack bring their eccentrically driven set for all to marvel at.  Would their perfection pay off?

Fellow Bristol resident, Martina Topley-Bird, opened the night with a beautiful solo production that captured the audience’s attention from start to finish.  Known for her dark but sensually smooth vocals which brought former Massive Attack member Tricky to fame, it was clearly demonstrated her musical talents are not just resigned to her singing ability.  Rotating between instruments, Martina performed tracks off her past solo efforts, giving the audience a taste of independent magnificence.  The appearance was indeed a rare treat for fans of the legendary Bristol, UK music scene that has produced legends such as Portishead.  Martina had not previously brought her solo act to the States, but made the wait worthwhile for listeners as her soulful and gentle voice carried each song perfectly.

A surprising follow-up to the well fitted opening performance of Martina Topley-Bird, MNDR, a solo electronic act from across the bay in Oakland, shocked the audience from the very get go with a high tempo performance full of awkward beat patterns and uncomfortably high-pitched vocals.  Perhaps those in attendance shared a similar sentiment, but in all my years of attending concerts, this was quite arguably one of the worst opening acts I have seen.  Many attempts were made to engage the crowd, all unsuccessful and overdone.  A homage paid to the Oakland tradition of “Ghost ridin’ the whip” caused eyes to roll and heads to shake in disbelief.  A poor pre-cursor to what is Massive Attack, the audience weakly applauded her exit.

Massive Attack define a genre.  Starting as a DJ crew in the urban town of Bristol, England, they have constantly avoided the label of trip-hop, an understandable quality as both their music and the genre itself comprise of many select ingredients such as reggae, hip-hop, electronic and down-tempo music.  Their music is timeless and constantly evolving, a rare quality in the business today.  Ask any top music critic which artists should be listened to and Massive Attack are sure to come up.  Their last appearance in the Bay Area dated back to 2006, a memorable performance at the Greek Theatre that happened to not include Grant “Daddy G” Marshall as his wife just gave birth to his child.  Now back with each member present to hold their own, the mysterious Massive Attack drew a packed venue that anxiously awaited what would be thrown at them.

The band took the stage to almost complete darkness, opening with an unreleased track entitled “United Snakes”.  Still a song unfamiliar to many, perplexity spread throughout the building but reassurance came as the slow building melody churned to crowd approval.  The group in total were many, including two drummers that sat opposite each other on both sides of the stage.  The sound, perhaps not warranted in a venue such as The Warfield where the bass easily overpowers vocals and melodies, was still exact in rhythm.  A group as musically intricate as Massive Attack will always find difficulty in replicating studio sound in a live venue, but they made a commendable attempt, with a mixing area center stage that would make any music production junkie drool.

Legendary reggae singer Horace Andy, a long time contributor to Massive Attack’s work, joined the stage to deliver his emotive voice on tracks such as “Angel” and “Girl I Love You”.  Vocalists would be rotated, with Martina Topley-Bird being featured on a new rendition of the classic “Teardrop”.  Grant “Daddy G” Marshall strut out and spit out his signature deep and smoky tones, adding to tracks such as “Karmacoma”.  Going back to his roots, he sat down for a couple tunes on the mixing deck, while the darkly engaging beats continued to pump the crowd into a blissful sense of surreal.

Massive Attack are usually known for their brilliant light displays and this show was no different, uniquely adding to the atmosphere of the performance.  Horizontal lighting switched from colors to flashes to streaming real-time news bulletins from across the globe.  True to form, the music worked to put the listener though a spiritual journey of beats, rhythms, and life.  3D revealed to the audience his thoughts on the  Arizona immigration situation, but to many, this was not a surprise from the outspoken activist.  Although deeply focused on his craft, 3D was often seen smiling and caught having fun, seemingly looser than his 2006 performance.  Focusing mainly on their recent works, past albums were touched upon, leading into a superb encore performance of the 1991 classic “Unfinished Symphony”, a song that has repeatedly been named of the most important songs of the 1990’s and what first put the group on the map.  Guest vocalist Deborah Miller lent a hand to capture this tune as well as another timeless classic, “Safe From Harm”.  Her beautifully belting voice provoked the crowd to inerrupt her mid song to applaud her efforts.  The full band reconvened for “Splitting The Atom.  The group were greeted with a standing ovation after their roughly two hour peformance concluded.

Massive Attack showed us once again that their creations are like no other.  Another album is already scheduled to be produced after their current tour concludes, perhaps with an old friend (Tricky) rejoining them for what as been a long ride, but one that they undoubtedly started and defined.  We look forward to their return in wonder.  6 years perhaps?

Setlist:

United Snakes
Babel
Risingson
Girl I Love You
Psyche
Future Proof
Invade Me
Teardrop
Mezzanine
Angel
Safe From Harm
Inertia Creeps

Encore:

Splitting The Atom
Unfinished Sympathy
Atlas Air
Karmacoma

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