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Review: Massive Attack mesh ‘Mezzanine’ and current events at the Palace Theatre

Massive Attack performs on the main stage at the Big Chill festival near Ledbury in Herefordshire on August 6, 2010 (LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

The classic-album tour is, at bottom, a slightly cynical exercise. A band (or whomever) goes out, recreates their best-known or -loved LP or CD (depending on era) in the order released, throws in some greatest hits for the encore; commemorative T-shirts and tote bags do brisk business. No one is challenged, and everyone goes home content.

This was not quite how Massive Attack’s show at the Palace Theatre last night went. Yes, this tour — which was supposed to happen in March, before the tour was postponed due to illness — did indeed commemorate a fan-favorite album, their third, 1998’s Mezzanine, which had been reissued last year on its twentieth anniversary. There was merch aplenty, as well. But Massive Attack hardly played the album front to back. On this go-round, they’ve pulled it apart, adding covers of songs that they’d sampled on the album, and tied it all together with elaborate staging.

The band’s longtime collaborator Adam Curtis designed the show, which frontman Robert Del Naja called Massive Attack’s “own personalized nostalgia nightmare head trip.” (For example, during “Inertia Creeps,” we saw President Trump’s face superimposed over other people, e.g. Britney Spears in the “ . . . Baby One More Time” video.) Curtis explained to Consequence of Sound that the show reflected “the strange journey we have all been on over the past twenty years . . . How we have moved into a strange backward-looking world, enclosed by machines that read our data and predict our every move, haunted by ghosts from the past.” Including the band’s own ghosts — the “giant CNN news ticker” that Rolling Stone described as a key part of the band’s show nine years ago was in full effect last night.

Another quote from that 2010 piece, from Del Naja: “We’re really into the global state of the world and the financial climate — the issues of news and media. For me, as a sort of graffiti artist, you can be provocative, throwing up words and phrases. And you can be interesting. And slightly childish at the same time.” A decade early, this is a good thumbnail of the Palace show.

Massive Attack declined to bring an opener on the Mezzanine tour. Instead, as the audience filed in, the muffled soundtrack was a 1998 greatest-hits comp — not the arty beat-driven stuff that Massive Attack had inspired, but Cher’s “Believe” and Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy wit’ It” and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” the stuff most people listening to Mezzanine at the time were trying to avoid. There was a little of that during the set, too — near the end, for some reason, the band saw fit to throw in a brief version of Avicii’s “Levels” (!), complete with over-bright lights, like a parody of an EDM show.

But for all the gewgaws (more below), this was the Massive Attack Revue, an airtight band — two drummers, two guitarists, and a bassist, alongside Del Naja and co-founder Grant Marshall. Both Marshall and Del Naja sang and, more often, rapped — which reconfigured the album’s arrangements into something leaner and more direct. The album’s two primary guest vocalists, Elisabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins and Jamaican crooner Horace Andy, buoyed things considerably.

Fraser is famously stage-shy; this tour has marked her first live performances since 2012. But with only four songs to sing, spaced well apart, she was clearly at ease — vowels airborne on the early “Black Milk,” phrasing powerfully delicate near the end on “Teardrop,” whose arrangement was hooked on an acoustic guitar like a spider web. The latter received, and deserved, the biggest hand of the night. Andy got a similarly robust reception. Rocking on his heels, he seemed to embrace the room when he performed “Man Next Door.” During his own “See a Man’s Face,” his vocal warmth contrasted sharply with the slogans appearing above him, such as “Leave means Leave” — the specter of Brexit overhead, literally.

Preening epigraphs flashing onscreen were a constant, and they were easily the show’s weakest aspect. Some of them were plain ham-handed, such as “Who killed [Jeffrey] Epstein?” in hot pink. Largely, though, they read as simple gotchas: “Suspicion is another form of control” (is it?), “Once upon a time, data was supposed to make you free” (was it?), “While outside the pleasure dome wars go on” (you don’t say?), “We are caught in an endless loop” (you said it). Several of these phrases were available on T-shirts whose prices began at $35 — capitalism makes fools of us all. Yet despite that sloganeering, this reimagined Mezzanine didn’t feel cynical — it felt committed and impassioned. That’s rare, especially for a group that is ultimately selling nostalgia.