Reviews / Bristol festivals

Review: Massive Attack, The Downs

By jonathon kardasz, Sunday Sep 4, 2016

Large triangular structures with semi-cryptic symbols and icons, a Second Stage that looks like a steam punk Mexican bordello, and an Information Stage comprising marquees, a hay bale seating arrangement with benches and a tent equipped with some dead comfy armchairs and settees for the videos.

The vibe is very Massive Attack on the Downs, with hoardings reminding us all that there is a never-ending refugee crisis (and we need to be working to solve it not making scapegoats) and the various speakers all advertised on individual wooden frames with banners – a tasty selection of righteous topics to be covered along with spoken word and a reminder that there are hard choices to be made for this one-day festival next to the Sea Walls.

The Information Stage fired up the punters

While it was hands in the air on the Main Stage 

There’s absolutely no rush as the doors open at 1pm. Clearly many punters have taken a look at the forecast and are planning their arrival around that and the running times, with the subsequent problems that caused.

Idle Hands on the Second Stage kicks things off well, with plenty of staff tapping their feet enjoying the sounds and the early arrivals digging it too. The first band to hit the Main Stage are Khruangbin, a three-piece outfit, Mark Speer and Laura Lee dressed in a fashion that is exceedingly stylish and totally inappropriate for the inclement weather – well done, screw the rain and look fabulous is a fantastic approach to outdoor gigs in the UK. They play a quite refreshingly difficult to categorise style of, well, psychedelic dub pop dance tunes; delicately picked guitar lines with heavy solos; monstrously muscular bass – right up in the mix and propelling the tunes with a relentless groove; all underpinned by less is more spacious drums from Donald Johnson, who glowered with concentration throughout the set and then broke in to a massive grin during the hit it ‘n’ quit finale, complete with hilariously minimalist solos from the rhythm section.

Mostly an instrumental set but with falsetto vocals that mine the soul tradition from Sly to Prince, the band drag in the scattered punters who got it instantly and were grooving and digging the band as they delivered an hour’s worth of music with panache and humour. Alas the running schedule means they overlapped with the Second Stage and walking off to that stage meant leaving the band as they paid tribute to Gene Wilder with an instrumental selection from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

Laura Lee from Khruangbin enjoying the show

The Second Stage now had a big crowd of dance warriors. No wonder as Stryda was punching out a heavyweight set of tunes, dedicated to the home crowd and specifically to those born and bred here (aka “the Southmead Massive”). The bass heavy plates were exactly the thing to get ya dancing regardless of the threatening grey above and the atmosphere was pungent with fags, e-fags and, let’s just say the quintessential smell of Bristol dance parties and gigs. The scattered seating blocks become dancing podiums as the crowd got down and got with it – who knew just how funky Bristolians could get in wellies?

A quick scoot back to the Main Stage to catch the end of the Khruangbin set and to refuel, and then it was more Stryda before grabbing a spot for Savages. Last seen round these parts at the BBC 6 Music bash (along with Pinch and Primal Scream) the band took to the stage in their usual chic black stage wear and delivered a ferocious set of post punk songs to the delight of the crowd. Their approach is fabulously out of kilter with mainstream rock (an observation, not a criticism of the mainstream) – the tunes are led by drum n bass (tribal drumming, percussive bass propelling each song headlong in to a climax) and the guitar is there to splash around colour, to dance around the rhythm section and to flesh out the sound; not to riff and certainly not for grandstanding solo histrionics. The band are a mesmerising presence on stage, sultry concentration and total passion – singer Jehnny Beth captivating as she rides the songs and lives the lyrics.

Jehnny Beth of Savages contemplates her traditional crowdsurfing

Smith & Mighty are local treasures and their set was basstastic, an even larger crowd once again proving that shitty weather is no obstacle to getting down. Their sound is still fresh and judging from the love emanating from the crowd and the grins on stage we can hope there’s more appearances to come. A trundle back to the Main Stage meant a chance to hear the Savages’ tribute to the mighty Alan Vega with a cover of Dream Baby Dream, soon after Beth had made it in to the crowd.

Next up at the Main Stage was Skepta, one of the leading lights of the UK grime scene. He drew a big crowd to the stage – with a noticeable reduction in the average age. The crowd was moving from the off and word perfect on the tunes, a mighty fierce and fat sound reminiscent of the original Def Jam acts in terms of sparse but heavy beats and sly lyrical dexterity. There’s no doubt that the UK is producing rap acts the equal of anything form the States, and Skepta proved grime’s ability to get a festival crowd moving with a set a dynamic set mostly drawn from his recent album Konnichiwa.

Skepta once again proved that grime can get a festival crowd moving

Three bands in on the Main Stage and it was apparent that the bookers deserve credit for selecting an eclectic mix of acts that blended to satisfying effect. Departing the Main Stage there was time to enjoy more tunes from the Second Stage courtesy of Pinch and his system, and then it was time to catch some more from the Information Stage.

Help Refugees co-founder Lliana Bird on the Information Stage

Hassan Akkad, a Syrian asylum seeker gave the performance of the day. Speaking clearly, eloquently with passion and self-deprecating humour he revealed exactly what it’s like to be a refugee; to be bombed, to be homeless and to then try and make a new life for yourself via the Jungle in Calais. Credit to Massive Attack for ensuring that these messages were front and centre – Akkad received a standing ovation and reminded us that when the Tories and tabloids talk about hordes, cockroaches and scroungers, they are talking about people like him.

Primal Scream took to the stage for the worst sound of the day – weak and vague, instruments floated in and out of the mix, an incredibly disappointing situation that was never really rectified. Jehnny Beth joined the band, but again, sound problems diminished the pleasure of her collaboration with Bobby G. Damaged was barely audibly. But the closing double punch of Country Girl and Rocks finally gave the crowd something to sing along to and jump around to in defiance of the sheets of rain.

Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream sees the light

A final wander around the site proved difficult with the arena filled to capacity. The queues for the bars and food stalls were stretching across the natural walkways and the crowds digging DJ Krust. It’s very apparent that a little more space was needed. The Second Stage being so close to the main entrance meant late arrivals had to barge through the dancers and the position of an adjacent row of food stalls meant more congestion. A lack of lighting also made the treks from stage to stage something of a stumbling nocturnal adventure. Small points but easily rectified, especially as the day was too good for this to be a one-off.

Massive Attack were undoubtedly, and deservedly, the highlight of the Main Stage. Opening with Hymn of the Big Wheel the sound was full and solid, the stage’s high backdrop providing a stunning display of slogans, old-school computer data / text and multiple visual feasts to go with the tunes.

Massive Attack were the undoubted highlight of the day

Massive’s music has always been dark. It’s evocative of real lives in the 21st century – lives a million miles away from reality TV (except as subjects to be laughed at and/or pitied); the hardships and inequality resulting from unfettered bigotry and rampant capitalism and exposes the malaise that lurks beneath social media and feel good culture. That said, it’s powerful and uplifting and the band (as proven today) aren’t afraid to kick back, challenging and informing and with music that is empowering, moving and really rather unique (who else sounds like this band?).

3D – definitely not Banksy

The Young Fathers were brought out for “extra firepower”. Azekel delivered a haunting Ritual Spirit whilst Horace Andy (pictured top and in fine voice throughout) was on and off stage for his numbers. Angel was especially sublime. 3D delivered a poignant Eurochild, describing it as “a song written 20 years ago as a requiem to the EU” and a bruising Future Proof.

Oh, and some bloke called Tricky joined them for Take it There (typical Massive Attack as everyone expected Karmacoma). 3D quashed the trending rumours by stating that “we are all Banksy” and then Deborah Miller brought the set to a climax with Safe from Harm and Unfinished Sympathy – uplifting tunes to draw a superb set to a close.

Daddy G at Massive Attack’s first Bristol gig in more than a decade

This was, weather notwithstanding, a fantastic affair and hopefully will become a regular fixture. A bit more thought to layout, smaller queues, a bit more lighting and we’re onto a winner – especially if next year’s bill is as eclectic and the gig retains its social conscience.


Massive Attack photos by Graham Brown. All other photos by ShotAway and Benjamin Eagle.

Read more: 25 things not to say at a Massive Attack gig

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