Category: Live Music

Review: Massive Attack – Mezzanine XXI @ the 02

Mezzanine-XX1-

On Friday I wrote about why I consider Mezzanine to be one of the greatest albums made in my lifetime. In addition, Massive Attack are a truly great live band; one who I’ve seen on over a half dozen occasions and who have never failed to transport me to a magical place with their live music.

For the Mezzanine XXI show, the band said in advance that this would be a re-imagining of the album, with group member Robert Del Naja describing it as a “one off piece of work; our own personalised nostalgia nightmare head trip”. In addition, the band once again collaborated with Adam Curtis, with Curtis compiling the stark visuals for the show. In advance of the tour, he said of the visuals:

“The show tells the story of the strange journey we have all been on over the past twenty years since ‘Mezzanine’ was released: How we have moved into a strange backward-looking world, enclosed by machines that read our data and predict our every move, haunted by ghosts from the past. 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?”

The band took to the stage at 2115 and it’d be fair to say there were a few external factors that weren’t in their favour. I’ve already blogged about how the venue right royally fucked up, but in addition two factors played out that did not help the gig at all.  An awful lot of the audience didn’t seem particularly interested in the gig; the audible chatting levels really hindered the experience for many, the Penguin included [I took two particularly loud girls chatting behind me to town with language that was somewhat fruity]. But the chatting was even more noticeable because the sound levels for the first five tracks was appallingly low.

The set started with a wall of guitar noise and a cover of the Velvet Underground’s I Found a Reason, a song sampled on Mezzanine track Risington, establishing both the raw, punky edge the night’s proceedings would have and also flagging up that this would be no ordinary Massive Attack gig. The band then went on to play Risington itself, which baffled plenty who expected the album to be played in its entirety from start to finish. Unfortunately the sound issues meant it fell flat; there was little applause or delight at the end.

The same process – of playing a sampled rock song featured on Mezzanine followed by the album version – was repeated next, with a lively and impressive version of The Cure’s 1015 Saturday Night followed by a disappointing rendition of Man Next Door, as Horace Andy’s vocals sounded flat and the incredible atmosphere of the original failed to migrate into the arena.

Black Milk was the last of the five songs to be played at such a low level of volume that they could barely reach the Penguin’s ears. But the cheer that erupted for Elizabeth Fraser’s first appearance on stage was certainly loud enough; the levels of affection pouring from the audience showed that she’s still held in the highest regard by music fans.

It was the title track, Mezzanine, when this gig really got going. The volume was cranked up, and it was the first of several tracks to receive an extended outro – with heavy guitars – that got the heart beating faster. It was a fantastic rendition and one of the best moments of the evening. An excellent cover – Baugaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead – followed, and whilst the original track was unknown to this penguin, it was noticeable from several members of the crowd that this was a very popular song to include.

The band were masked in darkness at the backstage, and never addressed the crowd. Leaving the talking to the music and visuals, it felt strange for them to not even acknowledge the reason we were all there, or to give a skeleton of an idea for how – and why – the show had come together. The band seemed almost awkward about a nostalgia tour – perhaps because of how difficult it was to record the original album, or perhaps because they fear that by looking back they’re somehow undermining their own musical future – but the visuals seemed to indicate that the real point of this show was to use Mezzanine’s appeal as a pretence for speaking about the world we experience in the here and now.

The visuals across five huge screens – spanning the entire stage – were pointed and intentionally provocative. At times harrowing, others comical, the general theme seemed to be that the world has become increasingly bizarre and nasty since 1998, and maybe we should reconsider our approach. There was a heavy emphasis on data and its misuse; Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein made regular appearances, as did children’s toys. Putin and – in particular – Donald Trump perhaps deserve special credits given their number of appearances. The latter’s face was transplanted onto a number of other celebrities, including Britney Spears in her school uniform in her debut video Baby One More Time. Disturbing doesn’t even begin to cover my reaction to that.

Various scenes of war, the destruction it causes and the grieving family members of victims were all shown. In addition, we were treated to a selection of political slogans ‘Brexit Means Brexit’, ‘Stronger, Closer Union’ amongst the most notable, alongside some of Massive Attack’s own messages, including ‘There are no enemies’. The difficulty with these type of visuals is – ironically – they’re so common place in live music experiences [see any Muse or U2 concert for example] that they had little impact, other than perhaps to lessen the connection the audience has with the band. The slogans in particular felt so obvious as to be passé; more A level art project than pioneering political point. In trying to elevate their show into a call to arms, they ended up cheapening the music that brought the fans to the arena in the first place. It’s also a little ironic – as several people pointed out on Twitter – to rail against capitalism and materialism when playing the O2 arena and selling your t-shirts for £30 a pop.

The second half of the set featured some impressive performances. A faster version of Horace Andy’s own track See a Man’s Face was an absolute reggae delight, and Andy also fronted a superb rendition of Angel. Live favourite Inertia Creeps suffered from sound problems – as did all of the tracks featuring 3D’s rapping – as you could barely hear the vocals. The opening notes of Teardrop saw a notable wave of excitement surge through the audience, and the visuals on the screen dropped to simply leave swirling white lights. It was a heavenly moment – the rarest of moments on this night when audience and the band united – and all of the O2 basked in Fraser’s peerless vocals.

The show closed with the operatic Group Four, which musically wowed but vocally struggled as again 3D’s voice barely left the stage. Fraser certainly shone, but it felt like an abrupt way to finish proceedings. The band walked off, and as people prepared a mental list of possible encores, the house lights sprung up.

What you’ll make of this gig will depend largely on your tolerance. Could you cope with the sound issues? Could you appreciate the harsh visuals? Do you mind the band not addressing the audience? I’ve seen Massive Attack enough times to know they’re better than this, but also that this was as much a statement of their art and opinions as it was their music. Certainly the brief snippet of an Avicii cover towards the end indicates that the band have a sense of humour and wanted you to see that this wasn’t meant to be a fluffy experience.

But ultimately this tour was about celebrating an album of tremendous importance to many people, and instead this tour was hijacked for other purposes. Sure we got the songs – albeit in a random order – the samples and the original vocalists, and we got some enhancements with the rocky outros, but we also lost a lot of the feeling that made the album so special. it’s an album of paranoia, isolation and darkness, and it didn’t translate particularly well to huge LED screens and propaganda. There were moments of genius, but there was also a steady flow of people leaving from about the halfway point. All in all, it was disappointing.

5/10

The O2 Arena – Serious questions to answer

the-o2-london-infoI wasn’t intending to blog today, but last night’s Massive Attack gig at the O2 Arena in London prompted a lot of thoughts and emotions. This post will be followed by another which is more focused on the gig and the band, but first I want to address the venue.

The O2 Arena has been running gigs in North Greenwich since 2007. I’ve seen some of my favourite gigs and artists there; Nine Inch Nails, Gorillaz, Madonna, Rihanna, Fleetwood Mac (four times), Prince, Marilyn Manson, Justin Timberlake, Rammstein. So many great memories.

I’ve always considered the O2 to be a necessary evil. It’s a big indoor venue – the second biggest in the country – and with that comes upsides and downsides. But I’ve always accepted the latter (most notably queues/delays to get home, iffy sound quality) because it’s close to home and attracts the biggest acts in the world.

I haven’t been to the O2 for nearly a year, and the experience last night was one of the worst I’ve had at a gig anywhere. It has somehow managed to turn itself into an anti-music venue.

Like almost every ticket purchaser, I received an email in advance stating:

In a separate email, we were advised to allow a little extra time:

The Penguin did, but still found himself joining a queue of hundreds – if not thousands – of people with standing tickets that snaked it’s way around the arena nearly back to the entrance of the building. For anyone who is familiar with the O2, that’s a bloody big queue.

Now I realise that post the attack on Manchester, there are serious issues for venues to consider to ensure the safety of people attending. But the stupidity of this system must be abundantly clear to anyone with a modicum of common sense. The music arena is one tiny section in the middle of the complex; there are shops, restaurants and huge concourses where you can roam – and where we were forced to queue – without being searched.

Is a system that compresses lots of people together – creating serious issues with flows of people in the process that resulted in someone getting knocked over – in an area where people aren’t searched safe? In the name of security, have the O2 not made their venue a more dangerous place?

[as an aside, the Penguin worked in a building that was of the highest security level for many years, and whatever measures were put in place were considerably less ridiculous than what we went through last night]

That’s before we get to the inconvenience of the system, the angst it created for fans – this writer included – who were worried they were going to miss the start of a set they’ve been waiting for for months. A number of people were visibly fuming at the situation.

But the strange thing is that Massive Attack played for around 90 minutes, playing pretty much the same set they’ve played on all of this tour. They came on at 2115, and I rather suspect they always intended to. So for those who arrived early – and who were expecting a long set, given it was meant to start at 2030 – felt let down by the band, harming their experience of the gig. For those who were stuck in the queue outside, the anxiety certainly harmed their experience. In short, everyone was annoyed one way or another.

So who gave the instruction to tell fans it was an 2030 prompt start? If, as I suspect, it was the venue, then they’ve seriously undermined a band performing in their venue and pissed off plenty of fans in the process. Are Massive Attack aware – and comfortable – with how the fans have been treated? Is this something the O2 are regularly doing to acts? Lying to fans on behalf of acts playing there because they can’t get a queuing system that works?

I wish I could stop there. But there’s a lot more. We were told in an email not to bring bags, and certainly not large ones. So why were there people in the standing section of the gig with giant rucksacks? So large that the people wearing them don’t even notice when they knock a drink out of other people’s hands? The venue aren’t even enforcing the stupid rules they’re making such a song and dance about.

And then we come to the bars. Of which there are very few if you’re in the standing section. Queuing for twenty five minutes for a drink is not particularly good fun, especially at those ludicrous prices. The bars that are there have half the number of staff they need to keep things moving quickly. Does anyone from the management of the venue actually attend any of their events as a punter? I seriously doubt it.

Since I last visited the O2 have introduced an ingenious ‘recycling’ scheme, which I hasten to add is not optional. If you get a drink, it has to come in one of their new reusable cups, for which you pay £2 for the pleasure. The cups are annoying to hold, but who cares about that?

The ‘best’ bit is that to redeem the £2, you have to queue at the end of the gig. When they’ve seemingly halved the number of staff at the bars, adding twenty minutes to your evening. The people in the queue at the end of the evening were laughing at the O2’s claim it was for recycling – because if it was they’d go out of their way to make it easier to sort – it’s just another way of bringing in a few more quid, and it stinks.

Finally, we come to the queue to get home. I understand the O2 gets a lot of visitors, but it seems like every time I go to a gig there they’re surprised that so many people want to get the tube home. There’s never any order, any barriers. There’s one person with a megaphone. People just calmly walk round the Long way and skip the queue. It’s chaotic and – probably given my comments above – a security hazard.

This was more of a rant than I’d hoped, but the O2 has now gone from being a necessary evil to a anti-music fan venue. Terrible organisation, ridiculously OTT security, stressful queuing, impossible to get a drink quickly and a nightmare to get home from. Oh and it’s crazy expensive. Maybe we just have to put up with it. Maybe they don’t care because enough people are going that quality is very must the servant of quantity. Or maybe they need a few more people to make them aware that it isn’t acceptable.

I’ve spent thousands of pounds on tickets for events at that venue. I very much doubt I’ll ever do so again. I’ve got tickets for one more event at the venue, and if it’s anything like it was last night I’ll never be going again. And I’d advise all music fans to do the same.

O2 – feel free to respond to any of the points above via email: astralpenguinsmusic@gmail.com

Lend Me Your Ears

Lend Me Your Ears

 

correspondents4

 

Your best friend asked if I was straight or gay
I can understand the question when I dance this way.
– Washington Square

 

The Correspondents @Brixton Jamm 11.02.17

 

With his completely shaved head, John Lennon glasses and tight lycra bodysuit, Mr Bruce certainly cuts a striking figure. And that’s before you see him move – all high knees and trailing arms as he flamboyantly twirls and jives his way back and forward across the stage. His outrageous dance moves are the driving force behind his notable stage-presence, and the manic energy he brings infallibly drives the crowd into a rambunctious frenzy. He serves as the frontman of The Correspondents, somehow catching his breath between skank-outs to hurl forward a stream of highly rhythmic, witty and eccentric lyrics.

Fear and Delight

 

The Correspondents themselves sit on that middle ground between DJ set-with-frontman and full blown live band, sometimes pulling in support from a live drummer and brass section, but this night at the Brixton Jamm they were stripped down to the core duo, Mr Bruce himself and beats-man Chuckles. Chuckles was responsible for providing the backing to Mr Bruce’s half-insane capering, and he did not disappoint, delivering a raft of playful skiffles, bassline wobbles and big beats. When asked by friends to define the Correspondents’ sound, I had to settle on the term electro-swing, but their constantly changing style has more than a few echoes of drum and bass and dubstep that keeps the energy levels constantly overflowing and the crowd asking for more. Big tunes of the night included the signature jaunty swing of Washington Square, the driving bassy electro-funk of What’s Happened to Soho, and sing-along crowd favourite Fear and Delight.

You Turn Me On

 

Worthy of mention too were the supporting act My Bad Sister, who warmed up the crowd superbly with their perfectly choreographed synchronised dance moves. The two front-women, identical twins, pitched their act provocatively somewhere between a power dance and a strip-tease. Dressed in glittering faux-police-officer gear, a good deal of which seemed to come off during the performance, they shuffled and skanked their way through a backing track largely composed of driving UK Bass of the sort that South Londoners know and love.

You Turn Me On Too…

 

All told, the night was a great success, bringing together friends from across the city and beyond for a showcase of what Brixton nightlife is all about. High-octane live performances, venues Jamm-packed with late-night revellers, and big, bassy sounds to keep the customers satisfied until the early hours of the morning. Who needs Soho anyway?