Club Townsend is a temple of boom. Tall black walls. Huge foreboding speakers stacked ontop of each other. A multi-tentacled lighting rig spread across the ceiling. Woofers that shake pants and tickle lungs. Tweeters that hiss like snakes.
Hearing Gang Starr's "Dwyck" and Schoolly D's "PSK" emanating from the speakers, I hoped hip-hop heaven would sound this good.
Gracing the stage was Tricky, Bristol's paranormal musical paradox. A composite of Ian Curtis and Black Album -era Prince, Tricky's albums, Maxinquaye ,Pre-Millennium Tension and Nearly God , built upon the "trip-hop" craze already plundered by DJ Krush and the whole Mo'Wax and Ninjatune posse.
Tricky's irreverent guttural spittings over mine-shaft beats and funereal orchestration are set off by the moody blues of vocalist Martina. Unlike the Mo'Wax confab, Tricky bypasses the underground and works the commercial route.
He regularly borrows from hip-hop greats--reworking Chill Rob G's "Bad Dream," Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," Eric B. and Rakim's "Lyrics of Fury" and Slick Rick's "A Children's Story" into spacy tributes. The brother is on beat, but can he bring it live?
Opener Jeru Tha Damaja was off the tour. His sole replacement was a DJ who spun hip-hop and then later, house and jungle beats. At 10:20pm, the lights lowered and a Bowie-sounding track I had never heard ("I danced myself out of the room") was followed by a cut off of Snoop Doggy Dogg's latest album. Tricky, trailed by a bassist, keyboardist, guitarist, drummer and Martina, entered to a whoop of anticipation.
Tricky's show was entrancing, dynamic and creepy all at once. He looked pretty ragged in loose-fit jeans and a three-quarter-sleeve baseball shirt. Martina was resplendent in white blouse and black slacks but moved in an opium-den fog. Her sad, late-season Billy Holiday-like stage presence was enhanced by her sole red footlight.
Tricky, on the other hand, shunned the limelight completely. Whatever mood lighting he had was courtesy of Martina's foot lamp a yard away. Cloaking oneself in a shroud of mystery is nothing new; Joy Division and New Order would often perform in the dark with their back to the audience for the whole show. Public Image Limited used to play behind screens. The reason for less lighting would prove itself soon.
"Ponderosa" opened the show and set Martina in slow motion. She gave her lines with respectful conviction. Her lines fulfilled, she'd camp next to the drum kit and sway in a smacked-out trance. His back to the audience, Tricky fiddled with the keyboard parts and puffed on cigarettes.
"Christiansands" introduced Tricky to the mic. I got up close enough to see what Tricky looked like. He shook. His twisted, contorted face was rapid-fire--as if he were watching a tennis match on fast-forward. The majority of songs were performed at a higher beat per minute, making this tic part of his standard OS.
Tricky's voice was gravely and creepy, as if he'd just rolled out of bed and smoked a carton of filterless Camels. "Overcome" and "Piano" followed. Tricky choked the mic as if it were a giant weed.
The pace picked up during the hip-hop inspired joints. The beats were clamoring and pure gravy while Martina and Tricky traded off lines. "Bad Dream," "Lyrics of Fury" and "Black Steel" were received with knowing nods.
"Makes Me Wanna Die" and "Sex Drive" were slavish odes to basic instinct. "Feed Me" snatched pieces of the Specials' "Night Klub," with Tricky repeating the Specials' lyric, "What am I doing here/the beer tastes just like piss," like a mantra.
His body trembled in the darkness, a side spot highlighting his ripped back clinging beneath his sweaty shirt. "Brand New You're Retro" was enhanced with a clever violin loop and Burundi beats. He was vibing off it, dissing the hordes of pop hacks, and promptly ended the show.
A short break, and the band was back for two tracks. The synthesizer tolled like a bell, and the band went wildin' on freeform jazz-funk lines. The rap-intensive "Tricky Kid" found Tricky going through various states of emotional duress. He'd repeatedly scat "Don't push me," "I'm not from Shao-lin," "I'm going insane" and "I'll make you famous" all while shaking in a spastic fit. A 15-minute jam followed, with even more venting and fibrillating.
Tricky is one of the few musicians who transcend the recorded persona. In two hours, Tricky let 700 people squint at the deeper regions of his soul. And people are worried about Marilyn Manson? Tricky's lethal weapon is his mind. Good thing the lights were low.