Friday, 12 September 2008

Massive Attack, Becks Fusion, Castlefield, Saturday September 6

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. An outdoor, end of summer concert at Castlefield Arena, surrounded by the historic railway bridges, converted warehouses and canals of industrial Manchester. In reality, the crowd spent the day cowering under arches trying to escape the downpour that marred most of the festival.

By the time Bristol trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack took the stage, the atmosphere was electric. We'd waited for most of the day in soggy clothes, so the ambience was less dance music rave and stylish young music fans, and more a sea of sensible yellow ponchos, crackly bin-liner meets comedy duck costumes, that were handed out for free by the foresighted organisers.

New York singer Santogold's energetic mix of reggae, disco and hip-hop, and the polished spectacle of dancers and posturing musicians, just about made us forget the deluge, and she wore an eccentric, colourful enough costume, an eighties style jumpsuit, to make us feel less ridiculous.

Massive Attack may have held off the rain, but their set highlighted the real villain of the night: the crowd. Perhaps due to the perils of a free gig, many of the crowd members seemed more interested in talking amongst themselves than watching Massive Attack. They may have started in an unassuming manner, Djs hiding behind a screen and stage lights, but by the end we were shown that Massive Attack aren't just a coffee table, electronic background music band: they rock.

In the front few rows, a young woman chatted up a fellow crowd member by talking nonstop about herself, and the 'life-changing' experiences of her travels. Behind her on screen, Massive Attack mounted a political as well as musical barrage, comprised of quotations from genuinely life changing figures and situations. As a revolving cast of musicians, including Tricky, intoned dramatically into a microphone at the front of the stage, dialogue about torture from Guantanamo Bay inmates was screened across the backdrop and Nelson Mandela's words of wisdom were lit up in lights. Massive Attack even contributed to the US presidential debate by flashing excerpts of Obama and McCain's speeches at us.

A hard core in the centre jumped up and down, but a couple in front of me spent the entire show taking photos of each other on their mobile phones and sending them to friends. Drunk revelers may have turned round briefly to watch Massive Attack's most famous song Teardrop, a decade on eerily realised by an angelic, otherworldy blonde singer clinging to a white Gibson almost as large as her waifish form for dear life, but spent most of the gig turned away from the stage talking and shrieking loudly, plastic cups of Becks beer held aloft. Unfinished Sympathy, though, with its sombre string section, was still as affecting as when it was released almost twenty years ago, and impossible to ignore.

One small mercy was the cobblestones underfoot. They may be difficult to walk on at times, but at least it meant the ground didn't flood and we weren't splashing around in mud, true British festival style.

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