Everyone OK out there?” asked Robert del Naja from the Roseland stage. “Well, that’s good, because this next one’s about my homicidal ex-girlfriend’s mum who’s a crackhead.”
Massive Attack’s music isn’t built for mass adulation. They’re studio creatures, and their psychedelic dread symphonies work on grooves and eerie sonic details, not hooks or personality. Emaciated robo-skank guitars, mumble-coo vocals, muffled breakbeats: It’s interior-space music, and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for showmanship. The British group is regularly credited with creating trip-hop, whatever that means, and hardly ever sounds anything like rap. But Massive Attack’s spiritual descendants aren’t the legions of politely glassy boutique music non-entities that sprung up in their wake. They have more in common with the damp, woozy, intuitively psychedelic rap scenes of Memphis and Houston, places where beats reflect drugs and depression, not ecstatic release.
As a result, the idea of a Massive Attack live show feels counterintuitive; this music’s not made with any sort of communal experience in mind. So their recent three-night stand at the the Roseland did the only thing that makes sense: turned the usual live spectacle into a darkly tactile experience, the lights showing more character than the actual people onstage. The anonymous black-clad backing band worked up its fog-swept grooves in front of a wall of blinking lights apparently left over from the last Coldplay tour, while del Naja and Grant Marshall, the group’s only remaining core members, stood off in the shadows, only visible in silhouette. The former nervously played master of ceremonies all night, dancing around like a boxer, incoherently mumbling his minimal stage patter, and disappearing into the wings whenever he introduced one of the night’s guest vocalists (reggae vet Horace Andy, Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser). Marshall, towering over his partner whenever he was onstage, hardly acknowledged the crowd, murmuring his raps into the middle distance.
The only bits of actual performance came from the guests: Andy’s amazing old-man dancing, Fraser rocking the flowing white dress. The music did most of the work. The backing band made the wise decision to stick largely with faithfully re-creating records like 1998’s Mezzanine and only making a few minute changes: a great extended drone-squall guitar solo during “Safe From Harm,” an ill-advised industrial throb on the gorgeously hopeful Andy showcase “Hymn of the Big Wheel.” The replicas weren’t perfect—the ethereal harpsichord chimes on “Teardrop” sounded somehow wrong coming out of an acoustic guitar—but their decade-old basslines still filled the air, loud enough to vibrate chest cavities. And the group pulled maximum mileage out of its few big-rock moments, marking the fuzz-guitar hammer fall of “Inertia Creeps” with an explosion of strobes and muddily connecting “Safe From Harm” to the outside world with a string of LCD-screen infographics about the Iraq war. But Massive Attack are about tension, not release, and their paranoid, languid sprawl worked live because they didn’t work too hard.