Piers Barber watches an angry Massive Attack occasionally reach their thrilling best during a politically-infused headline slot at the first British Summer Time date of the summer.
The opening show of this year’s British Summer Time takes place little more than a week after a confused nation made the momentous decision to pack their bags and leave the European Union. It means, in a shift surely completely unanticipated by its organisers, that tonight’s event in London’s Hyde Park assumes bitterly political overtones, with unity and fiery rejection of bigotry the firm order of the day. Suddenly, the increasingly politicised Massive Attack seem an even more inspired booking as headliner than normal.
Before the Bristol trip-hop collective take to the leafy main stage, though, the crowd is treated to the compelling punk-folk of Patti Smith, who delivers a typically arresting performance featuring tributes to Julian Assange, Prince, and those affected by the recent Istanbul terrorist attacks. Opening with a striking reading of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Footnote To Howl,’ her show is captivating show of protest and courage. Smith is electric, angry and engaging throughout, with any fears that her act could drift towards the dated defied by the context of the uncertain contemporary moment. Acts including TV On The Radio, Ghostpoet and Warpaint provide further heavyweight support on two separate stages.
Massive Attack arrive to conclude the day just as a double rainbow beautifully frames the main Hyde Park stage. The band open with the always exhilarating ‘United Snakes’ – all quickfire drumming, glitchy electronics and characteristically sinister vocals. ‘Euro Child’ soon follows, a song written in 1994 upon the birth of the European Union that here is performed as a resentful and emotive “requiem.” It’s accompanied by visuals representing a giant airports departure board, on which every flight ends up cancelled.
Yet the band initially struggle to fully find their stride. A few too many songs meander by, with tracks such as ‘Ritual Spirit,’ featuring vocalist Ezekiel, and ‘Pray For Rain,’ with TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, admittedly beautifully delivered but lacking in the urgency required to arrest the attention of an eager crowd.
The show receives a sudden and welcome resurgence with the appearance of long term collaborator Horace Andy, who is wheeled out onto the stage with a broken leg hoisted high to deliver the brilliantly menacing ‘Angel.’ It’s a breathtaking moment, with alarming screeching guitars and Andy’s stunning vocal soaring over a transfixed crowd as darkness descends on Hyde Park. It’s followed by a moment of quiet awe from audience, a spell ultimately broken by Andy, who quips how it’s “straight back to the hospital” for him as he is wheeled off by the band’s adoring members.
Yet this momentum is again quelled by an unsatisfying four song appearance from Young Fathers, Edinburgh’s critically acclaimed rap collective, who Massive Attack appear to have handpicked as their natural heirs. They certainly seem to share the same sense of political menace, and ‘Voodoo In My Blood,’ their collaboration on Massive Attack’s recent EP Ritual Spirit, feels urgent and important. Their solo material falls slightly flat, though, and their extended appearance feels an underwhelming attempt from the senior band to appeal to a younger crowd. It’s a strange interlude, which left me imploring Massive Attack to be be bolder and more confident in the potency of their own material, rather than feel the need to devote nearly a third of their show to another group.
It leaves little time for the band to reach their own crescendo. They deliver a compelling ‘Inertia Creeps,’ before bringing out their most momentous guest so far: Tricky, who performs with the band with which he established his career for the first time in two decades. It’s a highly anticipated appearance, but the ideosyncratic lyricist appears for only one song, the average ‘Take It There,’ from the Ritual Spirit EP. He’s gone before many realise he’s even there, leaving those unfamiliar with Tricky’s complicated and rich association with the band slightly bewildered as to what all the fuss is about.
Vocalist Deborah Miller appears for ‘Safe From Harm,’ before the band return for an encore with a full orchestra for the still remarkable and unique ‘Unfinished Sympathy.’ “WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER” reads a huge illuminated background, with the band using their encore to make a plea for increased aid to refugees. It’s certainly a stunning conclusion, blending the vital messaging, arresting electronics and pure musicality that have become the staple characteristics of this most vital and influential of British bands. At certain moments they succeed in reminding the crowd of their momentous importance and enduring relevancy. It’s just a shame that, on tonight of all nights, the group seem reluctant to showcase their vital legacy throughout the entirety of their set.