Tricky’s tricks are best confined to the studio. Seeing him judder about the stage of St John-at-Hackney Church last Friday night made me miss the finer sonic details of his 1995 breakthrough album Maxinquaye, in which atmosphere and beat enliven each other rather than slugging it out through a minimally varied set of songs.
It wasn’t the set it could have been. The crowd didn’t liven up until Tricky regaled them with ‘Overcome’, which lacked the claustrophobic shallow breathing of the Maxinquaye version, instead relying on familiarity – and perhaps on the cognitive dissonance induced by listening to trip-hop in a church – for its allure. The music picked up only when Tricky launched into the Stooges’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ – a brief reminder of the artist’s more rock-oriented days, and an early suggestion that the gig’s most rousing moments would come from an outside source.
More on the church, briefly: it’s a superb music venue. Seats in the circle, on either side of an enormous set of organ pipes, afford a good view, and the auditorium floor is capacious. The pews, of course, are nowhere to be seen at festival times, while the Ten Commandments, set in granite, hang otiose on the front wall. Acoustics and aesthetic combine to make a hell of an arena, a space that was unfortunately wasted on Friday night.
Listening to the beat lumber on like an armadillo with attitude, I began to piece together why the gig was so disappointing. In part, it must have been that Tricky-on-record makes alienation seem intimate, in a way that Tricky-in-auditorium could never bring to bear. His insistence on keeping his back to the audience didn’t help: he is not the Prince of Darkness, nor was meant to be, and thus couldn’t turn disassociation into dynamic scintillating soundscapes the way Miles could. And there was nothing inherently wrong with his reliance on vocal amanuensis Francesca Belmonte; after all, twenty years later, Martina Topley-Bird still sounds invaluable to the sound of Tricky’s solo breakthrough. But even the charismatic-seeming Belmonte couldn’t leaven the load of the leaden rhythms.
The new direction he’s taken on his latest LP, Adrian Thaws, is intriguing. The politicised New Order grooves, the controlled James Williamson-esque guitar work, the Ghostface Killah channelled through Bella Gotti, and the usual heady atmospherics work cohesively to kick out a sucker-punch of an album. Shame it didn’t really translate live.
Images courtesy of Antonio Pagano