For most musicians in the electronic realm, the challenge of playing live lies not in transcendence but in duplication. Can they do it live? As Massive Attack proved last Thursday at the Paramount, not only can the group successfully trace the steps outlined on record, but it can create new pathways that elevate the heart and mind of the listener.
Opening with "Angel," also the dark, drowning start of its latest record, Mezzanine, the group's backing instrumentalists (Michael Timothy, Winston Blisset, Angelo Bruschini) set the stage for an evening of edgy, uncompromising, experimental hip-hop that was simultaneously epic and mellow to the point of coma. Singer Horace Andy, whose voice normally brings out the lighter side of Massive's sound, here coaxed the devil inside. Dressed in green army clothes, both Andy and Daddy G (Grant Marshall) appeared ready for a musical battle: the intensely heavy beats fighting the angelic atmosphere normally reserved for a pretty trance record.
The first half of the show was culled from the group's two best records, Blue Lines (its debut) and Mezzanine. Gliding through "Man Next Door," "Daydreamer," and "Teardrop," Massive Attack delayed playing material from Protection until midway through the set, when it unleashed "Karmacoma" to a rabid response. With the familiar low-key rapping of 3D (Robert Del Naja) and Daddy G replacing Tricky's overrated and irritating voice (which is on the recording), the live version had as much, if not more, punch as the original.
In stark contrast to the hyped, packed Garbage show a few days earlier at the same venue, Massive Attack's show was sadly undersold, but the crowd was no less enthusiastic. The two shows couldn't have been more different in another way: Garbage has Shirley Manson, the modern man's fuck-me pin-up punk-rock doll, while Massive Attack lacks any single star presence. With no figure dressed in a tight orange mini with a bobbing ponytailed head at center stage, Massive Attack relied on the quality of its music to carry the show. The group's three permanent members—3D, Daddy G, and Mushroom (Andrew Vowles)—didn't even appear on stage until the second number, and even then, it's doubtful many audience members could've named who was who—a testament to their interchangeable and equal talents.
If there was a star on Thursday, it was Horace Andy, and not touring singer Deborah Miller, who had the unenviable task of filling in for Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn, and Liz Fraser—the irreplaceable guest vocalists on Massive Attack's records. Although her voice is not as distinctive as her more famous studio counterparts, Miller did an admirable job of resurrecting those vocal parts, especially during the encore's first portion, on "Unfinished Symphony." Yet Andy, with his unassuming demeanor and his airy and shimmering voice, sustained the show. Miller was relegated to the diva role, while Andy could express every facet of human emotion, from anger to sadness, despair to joy—taking the audience along for a ride from hell to heaven.