By Helen Brown
Being a proud Bristol boy, we can only assume Tricky chose this gig to open the three-date ‘Maxinquaye’ tour out of love of the city and to be close to his family, who are present on the stage from the get go.
Launching unceremoniously into ‘Ponderosa’, Tricky commands the performance, conducting the band with one hand and saluting the audience with the other, drink held aloft. He waits approximately half a song before removing his shirt, ignoring tradition, no introductory speech, no introducing the band or Martina Topley-Bird, who is worth the ticket alone, decked out in some kind of ball gown belted over her top and jeans, why not eh?
Anyone who has seen this performer is aware that he can be erratic and prone to do whatever takes his fancy on stage, as such we are led into a short improv piece before ‘Aftermath’ which beautifully showcases Topley-Bird’s silken vocal. ‘Black Steel’ powers in with an instant blast of bombastic sound raising the momentum and waking up the largely lethargic crowd, name checking Public Enemy and appealing to the anti- establishment Bristol vibe, the band creates an impressive volume given its surprisingly small size.
Suddenly the pace drops and ‘Suffocated Love’ trips in as erotic and driving as expected, its stoned and dangerous lyrics seem fitting to Tricky’s mood as he seems distracted and distant from Topley-Bird, who remains head down and humble from start to finish. ‘Feed Me’ stumbles along drunkenly discordant, encapsulating the wasted lament of ‘Maxinquaye’ – love and life gone wrong amidst booze and the rest.
The wonderful ‘Overcome’ follows, haunting and sad it still holds its own in 2012, there is still nothing else like its smoky draw and it transports, those of us old enough to recall it, back to pre-smoking ban sweaty dives which health and safety would condemn today. Something seems to be on Tricky’s mind too and he leaves the stage for most of the song returning for ‘Abbon Fat Tracks’. ‘Hell is Round the Corner’ may not have the relevance of its first plays 15 years ago, but creates a buzz in the crowd, the sample (which was also used by Portishead) as lush and resonant as ever. The song builds and builds and Tricky gestures towards his entourage “the struggle for my family” as he trips into his signature rambling improvisation carrying the crowd along as seen during his 1998 Glastonbury performance.
Bringing on a guest singer for ‘Pumpkin’, Tricky abruptly interrupts complaining he is bored of ‘this Maxinquaye shit’ and invites the audience onstage while his younger brother MCs impressively. Others onstage join in for a free for all that goes on way too long for some audience members, who leave, and Topley-Bird is welcomed back onto the stage after around 15 minutes by the remaining crowd. Continually thanking and praising the audience and stating his devotion to Bristol, he repays his faithful fans with a rambling 20 minutes version of ‘Strugglin’ and brings the guitar player forward for a jam of what we can only guess is one of his songs.
After a good chunk of this, audience members begin to file out and all hope of a full performance is lost. Tricky remains absent and there is an obvious search for the star going on as Topley-Bird enters and exits the stage, visibly unsettled by events. Silence follows and the foot stomping and shouting begins. He returns briefly to thank everyone again and ‘Brand New Retro’ strikes up building hopes, which are dashed as the young MCs reappear for 20 minutes and eventually even they give up and the venue goes silent again. Another 15 minutes goes by and the ever valiant Topley-Bird treats the audience to a solo version of ‘She Makes Me Wanna Die’ from ‘Pre Millennium Tension’ – which may have been a good summary of her dread at the shambolic close of this retrospective. She leaves to hearty applause, well deserved after keeping the concert alive despite obvious obstacles and delivering such consistently beautiful vocals.
Debate abounds amongst the leaving crowd – was he unwell, was he forced into it – I can’t help but wonder if it was a wise move to revive such a landmark album when an artist has moved on so much, and may be vulnerable for whatever personal reasons. In some ways it’s refreshing to see Tricky’s rebellious spirit untamed, you can take the boy out of Knowle West and so on, but also it’s sad to see someone seem so lost (reports on his guest spot with Beyonce at Glastonbury last year point to concerns of underlying problems) and the themes of the album point toward demons perhaps best left? One leaving fan summed it up ‘He may be drunk, I’m drunk too, and I love that album, but 25 sheets is a lot to watch his mates and an empty stage”. Let’s hope Manchester and London get a better deal.
To watch more videos of Tricky’s Bristol gig, click here.