It was glorious sound and vision overload at Massive Attack's return to the Santa Barbara Bowl on Friday night, with the trip-hop pioneers — originals Robert "3D" Del Naja and Grant "Daddy G" Marshall along with a couple of incredible singers and a killer but mostly anonymous band — showing that they are still relevant over two decades after their first groundbreaking releases.
The show kicked off strong with "Karmacoma," with the band silhouetted by bright lights and the screens behind the stage getting their first workout with rapidly changing footage of the likes of O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, Lady Diana and problem spots such as Kabul. This was followed by the trancey "Battle Box" from 3D's recent project of the same name and featuring the first of many appearances of the evening by the mesmerizing singer Martina Topley-Bird. Here the screens flashed names of presumably made-up (or future?) drugs, along with different dosages.
Next up was the frenetic "United Snakes," with logos of corporations including Walmart, Facebook and AIG rapidly flashing on the screens. Some crazy-bright white flashing lights were synched to the rhythms, arguably fusing hearing and seeing into a single super-sense, while simultaneously making me wonder if I missed the warning for people who suffer from epilepsy or migraines.
A sensory breather came with the deconstructed reggae of "Paradise Circus," sung by Topley-Bird. This was followed by a mid-set heavy on songs from the band's landmark 1998 electronica album Mezzanine, namely "Risingson," "Teardrop," "Angel" in DJ mode because singer Horace Andy apparently didn't make his plane, and "Inertia Creeps."
For the latter, the screen showed timely headlines about celebrities and local stories like the "Gatorboy" mural and toxic lobsters found in Ventura. As an admitted over-consumer of news both serious and not-so-serious, I found it somewhat unsettling how many of these stories I was familiar with. Do I really need to know about all this stuff?
Mixed in with the Mezzanine songs was "Jupiter," also from 3D's Battle Box project, made more intense by the screen showing an unfolding transcript of a disturbingly clinical discussion about an unspecified aerial attack, presumably in the Middle East.
The band's first album, 1991's Blue Lines, which is credited with launching the trip-hop genre, got its first nod with the last song of the main set — "Safe From Harm" sung by Deborah Miller. Behind her the screen showed a freakout of social media-inspired text including commands to Like, Follow, Accept, Delete and Connect, along with statements like "Privacy is no longer a social norm."
The encore had Topley-Bird back to sing "Splitting the Atom," with the vibe of a twisted Leonard Cohen song and the screen continuing a not-so-subtle commentary-by-example on the silliness of the modern plugged-in age. This was followed by the sparse "Pray for Rain" in only its second-ever live performance, with Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio on vocals. (Speaking of TV on the Radio, they performed a wonderful, diverse opening set of their brand of indie rock.) The show closed with Miller singing Massive Attack's early hit "Unfinished Symphony," its dance vibe contrasting with the text on the screen about refugees from the crises in Iraq and Syria.
Massive Attack's sound throughout the evening was amazing, and the lighting and text-commentaries were clever, over-the-top and thought-provoking. One could argue that there were many meta moments as people shot camera photos and videos — no doubt to send to "friends" — of a show which often seemed to be calling out our obsession with sharing everything.
But this was one show that was best witnessed in person, because the sound and vision overload couldn't possibly be fully captured on a 4-inch screen. Or a concert review.
Safe From Harm
Splitting the Atom
Pray for Rain
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.