Last Sunday, I was lucky enough to catch Massive Attack on their Mezzanine XXI tour with my man Snakes, bringing it all back home with those trip hop vibes from the days of wayback. This tour marks the 21st anniversary of the group's monumental third album Mezzanine, which turned out to be their biggest record (even bigger than Blue Lines, the crew's era-defining debut) and probably the apotheosis of the whole trip hop phenomenon in the popular consciousness. I've always been a Protection man, meself, but there's no question that I've played Mezzanine just as much (Blue Lines too, truth be told). It's without a doubt one of the formative records of my musical life, opening up whole worlds of sound that had previously been hidden to me.
At any rate, Sunday rolled around and we found ourselves at that old Aztek haunt Tio Leo's to grab some Mexican food before the show. Kicking back and reminiscing, good vibes and good food, it turned out to be the ideal choice to get in the proper mental state for the show. After dinner, we made our way up to SDSU, where the Open Air Theatre sits nestled somewhere near the center of the campus. Steely Dan may have once said I'm never going back to my old school, but sometimes you end up doing exactly that, and it was trip and a half to kill some time before the show and see how much everything had changed.
As the sun set and the shadows crept in, the gates opened to the assorted punters waiting in the courtyard. We passed security and grabbed some drinks, making our way down the concrete steps into the amphitheater. The seats turned out to be perfect, just off to the right at a 3/4 angle, hovering right there in what might be called the mezzanine (funny enough, it turned out that Snakes caught Massive at this very same venue a decade ago, lucking into some tickets just before the concert).
A selection of pre-show music played over the P.A., muffled down with almost no treble, seeming to draw almost at random from the whole late-nineties pop showcase. Savage Garden, Britney Spears, Aerosmith, Cher, Fatboy Slim, Madonna, Chumbawamba... it's funny to reflect that for the most part nothing could have been further from what trip hop heads would have likely been listening to at the time, but maybe that was the idea. In retrospect, it certainly fits with where they'd take us once the band hit the stage...
With a barrage of strobing lights and a swift sonic pummeling, the band took to the stage. One might have fairly expected them to ooze into Mezzanine's dread-soaked opening track Angel, but there turned out to be a whole other sort of show in store. Launching into a blissful version of The Velvet Underground's I Found A Reason, the ethereal music was matched by imagery of the modern world projected on giant video screens. Then it hits me: 3D is singing! When did that start happening?! A welcome surprise, no doubt, getting started on the left foot and throwing audience expectations for a loop in the process... I love it!
Moving into the album proper with Risingson, the first single to see the light of day in anticipation of the album's release at the time, and one of my favorites on the record. It might be the album's most traditionally Bristol track, harking back to classic Massive numbers like Five Man Army and Karmacoma with 3D and Daddy G trading dread-soaked verses. Hearing it live was a revelation, almost overwhelming even, with the very sound rebuilt as a mile high wall of bass pressure and drums like oil tankers. Rock hard downbeat perfection as far as the eye could see, and as far as the ear could hear... I was in heaven.
With the sharp post punk of The Cure's 10:15 Saturday Night kicking into gear, it quickly became apparent that this might turn out to be a covers-heavy set, and indeed the band tended to alternate between Mezzanine tracks and cover versions that seemed to shed a little context on the record (for instance the slow-motion sample of 10:15's drip drip drip cropping up in Man Next Door). The covers leaned heavily toward post punk — that under-acknowledged ingredient in the Bristol story — which seemed to set the record sharply in the here and now. Other covers included the John Foxx-era Ultravox rave up Rockwrok and Bela Lugosi's Dead (which I'd actually never gotten around to hearing before) by Goth godfathers Bauhaus.
It also became clear that there would be no Protection tonight, no Blue Lines either... this evening was to be steeped in the deep black soul of Mezzanine. The visuals brought the whole thing into stark relief, with backdrop projections recalling nothing so much as the brainwash sequence from The Parallax View, in which consumerist imagery gets intercut with wartime footage and text overlays provide a running commentary. Certain themes began to emerge — the surveillance state, retro culture, over-reliance on technology and the ominous rise of A.I., violence and the casualties of war — all of which were hammered home with unrelenting repetition backed by a hard-as-nails beat.
My favorite moment of the evening was when Horace Andy sauntered up to the microphone and the band kicked into their phenomenal reworking of The Paragons' Man Next Door. Getting to see the man live was a real treat, and I got the impression I wasn't alone in thinking he stole the show. At one point — once he'd finished singing — he even skanked offstage as the band played on, and the crowd went wild! Similarly, the band worked through a soaring version of Exchange — the album's lone instrumental — before launching directly into a blazing cover of Horace Andy's See A Man's Face (the basis for his vocal on the tune's ethereal album-closing reprise).
It's impossible to use the word ethereal in this context without immediately thinking of Liz Fraser, who materialized onstage for a haunting rendition of Black Milk. This dreamy, doom-laden fairytale chanson was Mezzanine's great dark horse track: at first it played out almost subliminally before gradually getting under your skin for good. Another undoubted highlight from Fraser was a celestial take on Pete Seeger's Where Have All The Flowers Gone, reimagining the whole thing as a heartbreaking widescreen ambient ballad as footage of nuclear explosions and the aftermath of war etched themselves across the screen.
If there's one moment I was somewhat disappointed with, it was the live version of Mezzanine (the track). On the album, its without a doubt one of my absolute favorite moments — an untethered nightmare vision buried deep beneath a mountain of dread — so tightly wound and delivered with merciless precision. When that nasty Laughing Stock-style guitar/violin(?) comes searing into the headphones, its as if it were tearing itself out of the murky claustrophobic haze to bring everything into sharp focus.
Accordingly, it was the one track that seemed to suffer as it was lifted into the live setting, losing some of its subtle shading in the process. That atmospheric guitar shimmer seemed to stick around interminably — rather than receding back and forth on the horizon like some slow-lurking predator — and when the climax hit it all got a bit chaotic. This being the first show of the tour, and the tune undoubtedly one of the most tricky to unfold, I suspect that they're still working it out. Conversely, Inertia Creeps was stunning, the primal dark energy of the studio version set loose on the open veldt to hunt down its prey. It all fit in perfectly with the prevailing mood of the whole experience, the post punk, the imagery, the whole thing.
The show entered its inevitable denouement first with the slow burning soul of Angel (another win for Horace Andy) and then Teardrop immediately following, with Liz Fraser waxing angelic for a stirring rendition of the record's most storied song. Suddenly, in yet another abrupt shift, the band dropped immediately into a surprise cover of Avicii's Le7els, recasting the tune as a savage Injected With A Poison-style rave anthem shot-through with shades of eighties EBM and no-nonsense death disco.
Accompanied by rapid-fire Koyaanisqatsi-esque imagery all around, it set the stage perfectly for the closing Group Four. The band's reconstruction of the record's big closing epic — coming on the heels of everything that had already transpired — was quite powerful, with Fraser rising above its play of phenomenal pressure and weightlessness while 3D and Daddy G dwelled subterranean like raspy spirits lurking in the shadows. Exploding into a massive soaring crescendo, the band's wall of sound crashed across the crowd and out into the night, finally trailing off onto the horizon like some twilight apparition. And then it was all over, and band filed offstage.
The screen's final message was an unexpectedly hopeful one: stop living in the past, reclaim the future... the rest is up to you.