Corn Exchange, Brighton, Sat 24th May
Part of the Brighton Festival
If Tricky's still best known for trip-hop via his debut LP 'Maxinquaye' (1995), its true to form for him when that album scarcely gets a look-in tonight. (Contributing precisely one song, 'Overcome'.) His own opinions of the genre may, ironically enough, be summed up by one of its other tracks - 'Brand New You're Retro'. Feeling it quickly became branded, he complained of going to the cinema to find all the ads had been given quasi-trip-hop soundtracks. (“That was the end for me. My music had become McDonald's and I had to run away from it. I could never make another album like 'Maxinquaye'.")
Of course, as ever, to fit those cinema ads the sound of trip-hop was twisted as much as it was stretched. Though the description of it as a “cooler, late-night vibe” comes from Massive Attack's 3D, this ignores the important early influence of Gary Clail and Tackhead, colliding post-punk and dance at high impact. Alas the edgier, more disortienting side of the style soon got edited out for a slightly beatier version of chill-out. Yet 'Maxinquay' in particular was characterised by murky beats and slurred vocals, as if punch-drunk by life. Six-and-a-half minute songs about being sectioned don't fit the standard definition of chill-out.
Tricky also has a strange overlap with the other great genre of that era, grunge, even covering Nirvana's 'Something In the Way'. Like Nirvana, many of his tracks sound like they might once have been clean and anthemic, but fell into a disorienting fever dream before they could be released.
But 'Maxinquay' was, in its own weird way, ornate – in the way a collage artwork can juxtapose so many elements it builds up into a kind of sensory overload. In fact, the cover art - a collection of corroded surfaces, often covered with graffiti or the residue of layers of torn posters - was a kind of collage. (“Let me take you down the corridors of my life”, was perhaps the key lyric, like his mind was a labrynthine delapidated mansion even though when he wrote those words he probably lived in a bedsit.) It marshalled the insistent power of repetiton, but normally the 'artificial' repetition of samples on repeat, not the 'natural' samples of re-struck chords.
Whereas here everything which isn't strictly functional is discarded. The music's boiled-down, lyrics often reduced to a few repeated phrases. And the rock-totem guitar becomes a prominent instrument, with as many tracks riff-driven as beat-based. There's more Link Wray to it than there is Massive Attack. And, always a contrary bugger and averse to being labelled a black artist, it may be part-wilfulness on Tricky's part to be taking up so white a style.
Then two-thirds through an already intense set, he summarily dismisses his co-vocalist. (Who had previously seemed to be doing most of the work.) And things grow more intense still, like we'd already taken the mixer out of the spirits and now start on the neat alcohol. He skitters across the stage like a twitching spider, clutching at his clothes, a mike in each hand, head jerking between them.
The length of tracks seems not just sprawling but almost arbitrary, at least in the sense of developing as compositions. 'Vent', just over three minutes in the studio, stretched to forever. It has more of a ritual element, like the drums in voodoo the purpose of the track is to install some trance state upon everyone, and it'll keep going until it gets there. Which is probably another way of saying the tracks are tracks, in their purest form.
It's only the second time I've seen Tricky, and with many years between, but there is the same weird energy to things. He occasionally speaks to the audience, even thanks us for showing up, but mostly seems lost to some private episode, frequently turning away, at times not even thinking to hold the mike to his mouth. (“On my own again” becomes a repeated lyric.) It can sit strangely with a Saturday night crowd, large numbers of whom look dressed to go clubbing later. (And there was, alas, no shortage of audience wankers.)
It is, saying it can't be avoided, much the same weird energy you can feel radiating from a crazy guy in the street. But equally Tricky has often said he finds a fixation with his mental health be racist, and perhaps it is the cultural equivalent to the way higher numbers of black people get sectioned. He's often at pains to point out “on stage I'm a different person, very aggressive, very tense... I shake my head and the little lights start blurring, so I'm having trips and dreams. It's almost speaking in tongues.” There is of course a world of difference between being able to channel some force and having your life overwhelmed by it. Dali famously said “the only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad”. And that difference is important.
There are those who dismiss trip-hop, and all who sailed in it, as some Nineties fad. Like Blairism, something which just seemed a good idea at the time. And yet Tricky's still here, unbound to the sound he sprang from, and as strange and intense as ever.
The afore-mentioned 'Vent', though not from Brighton. There may not appear much to look at in this clip. But there often isn't with Tricky gigs. They go in for mood lighting, in the main...
Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 27th May
In one of his last ever interviews, the late great Captain Beefheart explained his reason for relocating to the desert – he found it “subtle”. His was not always an easy mind to guess. But what I think he meant was the place that looked to the outsider like a featureless expanse was, to the attuned eye, anything but.
And the desert blues of Malian band Tinawriwen (the name meaning “deserts” in their Tuareg language) seems similar. It's not as dynamic as conventional rock music, pretty much eschewing breaks and bursts for a continuous flow, one section blending smoothly into the next. And if a river metaphor seems to be shaping up there, let's pursue it. The surface of their tracks isn't always lively, they proceed at a measured rate and can appear placid. Something accentuated by the way both main set and encore were given a slow incline, starting with steady chant and a solo acoustic guitar respectively. But the longer you listen, the more you feel undercurrents are starting to hook you. The choral vocals, the guitar lines first seem mantra-like in their repetitivenessm but start to sound more intricate and interwoven as they progress. (I am not sure how many rivers there are in the deserts of Mali. Just go with it, okay?)
And in fact I later discovered this passage from their website bio:
“The desert is a place of hardship and subtle beauty, a stark world that reveals its secrets slowly and carefully... For Saharan blues band Tinariwen, the desert is their home, and their hypnotic and electrifying guitar rock reflects complex realities of their homebase.”
Not to over-generalise about the music of a continent, but John Peel once said of Zimbabwean band the Bundhu Boys that their music seemed to be coming up from the ground and passing through them. Similarly, rather than unleashing a barrage of power chords, Tinariwen seemed linked to some ceaseless energy source. You felt they could have played two or three times as long, had they been someplace which could accommodate.
Of course it's possible to be cynical about the whole 'world music' industry. It often feels like people are liking the sort of thing they think they should like. It can suggest rich hippies listening to their expensive steroes, and convincing themselves the process attunes them to the Global south. (The Dead Kennedy's famous “ethnicy jazz to parade your snazz.”) But one cool thing about Tinariwen, and perhaps desert blues in general, is that it's not music which is particularly interested in 'authenticity'. Though the drummer slaps traditional African drums, the rest utilise electric guitars. (Founder member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib allegedly built his first guitar, after seeing one in actionin a Western film.) They cite as influences the folk music of Mali, but also Arabic pop, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and (ulp!) Dire Straits. And seeing them in a rock venue like the Concorde, not some sedate arts centre, feels appropriate. First and foremost, they're a great live band.