Part of a growing wave of bands cashing in on Gen X nostalgia with an album anniversary tour, Massive Attack seemed to have a much more interesting — if not more noble — raison d’être for its mesmerizing concert Tuesday night at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul: to gloat about being right.
The British trip-hop/throb-rock groovers did much more than simply perform their influential, paranoiac 1998 record “Mezzanine” in full for the 2,500 fans. They also threw in some key cover songs and a barrage of TV and video footage echoing the album’s genesis, plus a couple of the singers who guested on the LP.
One those guests, ethereal-voiced Cocteau Twins frontwoman Elizabeth Fraser, added greatly to both the buzz and the time-capsule vibe of the show. She mostly retired from performing in the late ’90s, so her mere presence was one reason the gig sold out right away.
Still, the concert’s main co-star turned out to be all that video footage and other visual voodoo, including a tall wall of hyperactive strobes and other flashing and whirring lights that fans were still seeing in their heads come morning.
Images of Saddam Hussein and the first Iraq War hauntingly blended with goofy footage of Britney Spears and the British royal family on a screen behind the seven-piece band. The overall effect was to transport fans back to the era when news first became 24-7 and gossip became available at the click of a mouse. In the minds of Massive Attack’s masterminds, that’s apparently when the trouble started.
Like the dance-music version of a George Orwell novel, “Mezzanine” foreshadowed the takeover of computers in our everyday lives, including politics. It wasn’t just for cool sonic effects that one of the album’s standout tracks, “Dissolved Girl” — performed mid-show Tuesday — was used on screen in “The Matrix” a decade later.
“Once upon a time, data was going to free you,” the video backdrop read during the ironically serene cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I Am the Reason” near the start of the 90-minute performance, which was originally scheduled in March but was postponed due to an unspecified illness.
As the music turned darker later in the show, so did the messaging.
“Behind the scenes they track your data and tell you how to vote,” read another note during the ultra-punky version of Ultravox’s “RockWrok,” which — along with performances of the Cure’s “10:15 Saturday Night” and Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” — traced back to some of the music sampled and/or channeled on “Mezzanine.”
With post-1998 imagery of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump thrown in along with more recent references to Jeffrey Epstein and the mass shooting in El Paso — this was anything but an upbeat concert — the visual trickery and messaging was too heavy-handed at times. Like when a fast scroll of Instagram-style selfie photos morphed into photos of handguns during “Dissolved Girl,” or the several images of dead, bloody bodies from warfare footage shown throughout the set, especially in the final song “Group Four.”
Video of birds weirdly kept popping up, too, either as some kind of metaphor — i.e., they were here before us and will live after us — or just because the flapping wings matched up nicely with the fluttering beats.
Behind all that evocative but distracting imagery, the Massive Attack crew put on an impressive performance. Singer/multi-instrumentalist Robert “3D” Del Naja and co-founder Grant “Daddy G” Marshall tightly nailed the old tunes with help from two inventive dueling drummers and a downright magical bassist, none of whom were introduced. (Probably would’ve killed the gloomy vibe.)
Some fans likely did not know the other guest singer, Horace Andy. The Jamaican reggae star’s sandy, shaman-like voice added a psychedelic and soulful vibe to the slow-bobbing “Man Next Door;” think: doomsday dub music. Andy then sounded straight-up beautiful in “Angel,” a “Mezzanine” track based on his own song “You Are My Angel.”
Fraser, however, was loudly cheered from the moment she took the stage, starting with her eerie turn in the sonar-like “Black Milk.”
The reclusive star, whose all-black attire sharply contrasted with her silvery hair and angelic voice, only appeared for three more tunes, highlighted by her icy delivery of “Teardrop” and a willowy version of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
The latter song’s refrain, “When will they ever learn?” never sounded so ominous. Likewise, concerts are rarely so provocative as this one.
Maybe it’s a good thing Massive Attack only comes around once a decade or two, given the dark and depressing aspects of its show. But more more frequent visits might also diminish the amazing impact they had Tuesday.
Pretty damn spine-tingly hearing Elizabeth Fraser sing Teardrop near the end of tonight's otherworldly @MassiveAttackUK show. Look for a review in the morning. #mezzaninexxi pic.twitter.com/oOp4CojONP— C. Riemenschneider (@ChrisRstrib) September 11, 2019