26 September 2006

Electronica that doesn't disappoint live or Daniel attends Massive Attack

The art of going to a techno show is an interesting one. Now to your average fan of electronica you normally know what to expect. However, since the days of Moby, car commercials and movie soundtrack techno is now ubiquitous so there is a chance for the odd person to walk into a show and not know what to expect. This problem plagues the so called ‘titans of techno’ the most. How can Moby, The Chemical Brothers or Crystal Method recreate the pristine sounds of their records in a live space, especially when they are so heavily dependant on samples and guest vocalists?

Let’s face it our baseline for concerts is set by rock shows, where we pack around the stage and bask in the presence of our rock idols as much as we do enjoy the music. This is where techno throws a wrench into the works because by its very nature it is electronic and faceless; a DIY art form that is about the music and not the performers. This is how it started for most people with Kraftwerk blazing the trail of machines making music for people. I have seen Kraftwerk and to this day the approach stays the same, four impeccably dressed, older gentlemen standing in front of laptops programming their music in front of a live crowd to a backdrop of beautiful visuals. You can understand how this presents something of a problem for the rock fan that has no means to mosh or rock along with the tunes in the same usual fashion and the closer you get to the stage the less you gain from the performance.

By its very nature it is difficult to recreate your average electronic ‘song’ live because they are as multifaceted and complex as your average symphony. In order to create this live you basically need a few people twirling switches behind laptops which makes for a very boring show indeed. The groups I have seen that pull off the best live performances seem to make you feel like you are experiencing something live and make a connection to the audience. It is very easy to feel like you are simply listening to a tape while people mime behind computer screens.

For example Underworld have Karl Hyde out front singing and playing guitar from time to time, Prodigy have the vicious physical and lyrical assault of Maxim and Keith Flint running over the stage as well as Liams glowering from behind the belly of the beast, even Delirium when they toured employed two female vocalists to cover the body of their material. This merges the best aspects together and engages crowds that normally aren’t used to the icy cold approach.

Why bring all of this up you ask? Well the answer is very simple, this past week I finally got the privilege of seeing Massive Attack live. This was a group I was convinced I was never going to see. In fact they hadn’t been to Toronto since the “Mezzanine’ tour which I wasn’t able to attend being in high school. Although Mezzanine was one of the big albums that filled a spot in my past, I can even recall watching the now defunct Symphony of Fire from my Uncles old apartment in Mississauga while listening to Blue Lines (if you ever get a chance to hear Massive Attack soundtrack a fireworks display I suggest you give it a try its pretty fantastic if not a bit trippy). So when I heard they would be playing the musical wasteland of uncultured idiots that is San Diego I was excited.

The venue left a lot to be desired, it was essentially a concrete bomb shelter at SDSU, the only thing it had going for it was that it was open air. What you really want for a show like this is something with a lot of grass so the dancers can dance and sway about and you can just enjoy the show in your own fashion. The crowd was the sort of social outsiders you expect out here. A few Goths, some lost punks, American eagle trendies who read that ‘Mezzanine’ was an excellent album in Rolling Stone, techno hipsters and Eurotrash wearing clothes 5 years out of date. I won’t lie the Eurotrash attendants were hysterical, given that most of them hadn’t the bloody foggiest what the style even looks like.

If there is one thing you can always count on from a techno show its great visuals and Massive Attack did not disappoint. Although it took them awhile, they overcame the venue and a crowd with little to know exposure beyond ‘Angel’ and ‘Teardrop’ and won the day.

The equipped themselves with a group of the original performers of most of their songs and managed to exceed expectations. The best part for me was that they used Liz from the Cocteau Twins to perform all the vocals she has done on the album for the band. At one point after Angel a friend who had gone to the show with me turned to me and said ‘I’m really amazed at how well they did that’. He is also a techno fan and is aware of the many bitten and disappointed moments one has at these types of shows. But he hit the nail on the head. Massive Attack pulled off a flawless show and did not disappoint.

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