Brighton Festival 2015
Tricky makes complicated music because Adrian Thaws has had a complicated life, growing up in an extended family that was both black and white, urban and rural, containing strong women and volatile men. It’s typical of one of music’s most unpredictable characters that the first album to bear his birth name is one of his least introspective. ‘Calling it Adrian Thaws is saying you don’t really know me,’ says Tricky, explaining the title of his eleventh album. ‘So many times people have tried to put a finger on me and every album I go to a different place.’
The result is a commanding set of songs that finds the Bristol maverick at his most quietly menacing, ranging from straight up hip hop to house, rock and reggae,and featuring an international crew of collaborators. Fresh from a European tour, Tricky brings his dark, unnerving and ceaselessly inventive sound to Brighton Festival.
It’s been 20 years since the release of Maxinquaye. Tricky knows it’s been 20 years. His Spotify profile playlist shows that extraordinary debut album, a couple of tracks from follow-up Nearly God, and then a tiny handful between then and 2013’s glorious return-to-form False Idols. And tonight the 16-year-old in me is grinning, right at the front, waiting for the old magic.
Straight away, the noise is overwhelming. There are two very calm men at the back of the stage. One is somehow managing to play Tricky’s complicated, broken, Dadaist beats live on a drum kit. The other is holding a guitar and making the sort of noise that would make Hendrix reach to turn the volume down whilst staying perfectly still, as if he’s being charged by the muscle-contraction. Presumably there’s someone somewhere playing DAT or MP3 tracks as well, though I never catch a glimpse of them.
But, fundamentally, Tricky is nothing but broken beats, infectiously funky guitar hooks and woozy, stoned vocals. And tonight seems to be a demonstration of just how funky those beats and guitars can be. And as for the vocals, one important part of why False Idols was such a revelatory album was the introduction of Francesca Belmonte to Tricky’s ridiculously long list of collaborators. She adds in the lazy swagger that Martina Topley-Bird did on the first three albums. This balance to Tricky’s harsh masculinity worked brilliantly then, and it works brilliantly now.
The set list is confident, revisiting 1995’s Overcome, but mostly focussing in on the two most recent records. Parenthesis, Nothing Matters, Sun Down. These tracks are strong, and work well in this setting. My Palestine Girl hadn’t really stood out for me on the most recent record, but here, freed from the complex instrumentation of its album-mates, and amplified to a glorious volume, its minimalism works.
This is raw, sexy, aggressive music. So why does half the crowd look like they’ve wandered in from a conference on protecting your pension plan? It wouldn’t matter if they were dancing, but they just look shell-shocked. And no wonder.
Tricky limps around the stage, James-Brown-like, as if the beats are so funky that they’re making him ill. He staggers insensibly between the mics, picking up Belmonte’s, using one, two, waving them around, holding them to his chest instead of his face, cradling one like an erection, beating them against himself. His barely-contained energy is impressively animalistic, like a caged tiger, and it informs and infects the music. Soon, both vocalists are fighting a tangle of cords and mic stands in the middle of the stage.
Belmonte exits a little past the half-way mark, leaving the three men to carry on alone, and they prove that they’re more than capable, carving the most beautiful groove through the noise. These are clearly musicians perfectly comfortable in their own talent, knowing exactly how to weave their magic.
And after a masterful 90 minutes they’re gone. The audience splits into two factions: one riotous screaming, the other polite applause, so obviously no encore.
What have we learned? Well, Tricky might be staring down the barrel of 50, but he can certainly still cut it, both on record and live. But, bafflingly, he somehow seems to have picked up the radio 4 crowd for this Brighton Festival performance. Clearly that doesn’t help anything, but at least he doesn’t tone it down for them. We might have grown old (some more so than others), but, thank god, at least Tricky hasn’t.