We’ll never be able to forget the 90s. Even if we ever eradicate the cult of Cobain, VH1 will mercilessly bludgeon us until the dialogue from Reality Bites is finally memorized without a glitch. Ricardo “Speedboat” Rozay will continue to keep the memory of MC Hammer alive and well on the obese and ursine front (no Zubaz). And the enduring existence of Liz Phair means that “Fuck and Run” will always be considered the original “Toot It and Boot It.” But the truth is that most people cherish the memory of the Clinton years — the empirical proof residing in the sold-out euphoria induced by 90s nabobs, Massive Attack and Thievery Corporation, two groups whose fan bases remain large enough to validate even the most venal of Viacom programming executives.
1997′s Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi established Thievery as one of the American trip-hop vanguards–a group as apt to plumb “Scratch” and spliff reggae, as sitar-laced Indian raga, trippy head-nodding electronic music, bossa nova, or jazz. During my brief employment at Sea Level, there was an sexagenarian who came in every Friday to buy CD’s. And every week, he’d ask us if the Ibiza Chillout Lounge Mix Volume 12 had come in. And every week, we’d tell that them it hadn’t. I’m not sure if the record ever came in before the record store closed, but I live in an alternate 2010 where this crinkled old man who wore wife beaters and jean shorts, and carried money in his sock, eventually discovered Thievery and no longer needed to plumb the abyssal depths of chill Meditteranean trance.
Their most recent effort, 2008′s “Radio Retaliation,” took a more political bent, while thudding across genres ranging from Afro-Beat, Brazilian lounge, and New York house (cameos included Femi Kuti, Seu Jorge, and Louis Vega). At the Gibson, their grooves primarily descended from their Indian and Jamaican inspirations. Vocalists Sleepy Wonder, Roots, Zeebo, and the cheetah print-skirted Sista Pat handled everything from setlist staples like “Lebanese Blonde” and “Richest Man in Babylon,” to newer material like “Radio Retaliation,” “Numbers Game,” and the Kuti-less “Vampires.” It was a Bonaroo for the bourgeoisie, with one-time hippie types turned technology workers doing the worm while reliving those halcyon 90s years of limitless peace and prosperity.
On-stage, Sleepy Wonder (Sleepy Brown’s low-budget Jamaican equivalent) controlled the crowd in a Nehru jacket and a Hunter S., Thompson hat, dreads, and slacks. DJ’s and multiple guitarists, one of whom wore a scarf, that ultimate totem of urbane cosmopolitanism. The singers cried, “I feel like busting loose,” and a Hawaiian shirt and handle bar-clad mustached man wriggled with joy. At this point in their career, Thievery has settled into a limber sangria funk. They’re NPR-approved and boast a six blunts-deep groove that clearly lacks the originality of their early years. However, they’re still capable of conjuring a hydroponic electricity that captured the crowd of 6,000.
For the putative set highlight, they brought out hometown hero, Perry Farrell in all of his weird waxen glory to perform “Revolution Solution.” The crowd ate it up, but it was hard to watch the one-time Jane’s Addiction janissary mince around with his hair sculpted like David Bowie at his Thin White Duke apotheosis, absent any of the menace he once so successfully projected. I forget who said it first, but Perry Farrell is one of those fated few to have a slim window of brilliance that immediately shuts and refuses to open again. The man has been worthless since “Pets,” and if you disagree with me, I will play you the Entourage theme song one more time.
Massive Attack’s ability to pack the Gibson spoke to the size of the cult that the band has accrued despite releasing only a single album during the 2000s. Earlier this summer, the band sold out a well-received string of shows at the Wiltern, their first jaunt through the United States since the release of February’s unexpectedly strong, “Heligoland.” Masterminded by Robert “3D” Del Naja and Grantley “Daddy G” Marshall, “Heligoland,” found the group collaborating with Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, Damon Albarn, and Hope Sandoval, while enlisting Brazilian techno king Gui Boratto and dubstep star Breakage for remix duty. The variegated guest list spoke to the Bristol group’s progressive constitution, both politically and artistically. At this point in their career, Massive Attack could take the County Fair approach and play greatest hit sets cobbled together from “Blue Lines,” “Protection,” and “Mezzanine,” and fans would still flip.
Augmented by Martina Topley-Bird and Horace Andy, they instead leaned hard on their more recent material (sadly leaving the stellar “Paradise Circus” out of their setlist). Opener “United Snakes,” burst into a conflagration of smoke clouds and hard drums, a suffocating snuffed-out attack that set the tone for a taut carnivorous performance. While both Thievery and Massive Attack are united by their syncretic inclinations, the former recreate a blissful block party, while Massive Attack conjure the narcotic and noirish underbelly, a netherworld of foul dreams, cold air, and unsolved crimes.
3D sings with a distorted demonic whisper, a sotto voce psychedelia. Daddy G shakes with a weary swagger, his mumbling murderous voice full of shaky revelations. Topley-Bird emerges with a ruffled pink dress and a feathery black sash, as avian-like as her namesake. Wearing a painted-on gray face mask, she partially resembles a lost character from “Runaway.” Horace Andy crooned like a dazed shaman, wearing a black shirt coated in silver sequins. In the wan theater light and smoke, the gray in his hair looked like powder, causing him to seem an ancient extraterrestrial, an oracular archangel conjured by the blind eyes of a Jamaican John Milton.
A series of epileptic LED lights consumed the background, adding political subtext to the group’s stoned slither. Across them ran a series of sobering statistics: how much stations broadcast Rush Limbaugh, the number of plastic bottles dumped each day in Mexico, the cost of the drug war, and the various ills of the American health care and political systems. Should you ever play the still-unreleased version of Howard Zinn’s “Trivial Pursuit,” you might now know that Cuba has a slightly better life expectancy rating than the United States.
After a while, the infographics and flickering light burst into a schizophrenia of integers and binary codes–ones and zeros. The same saturnine algorithms currently clotting the screen oeveryone reading this, and it was there that the group stated their case most subtly. Massive Attack was there first. They always knew the perils of letting inertia creep and they were on-point all along. They caught our radio waves when most things still had wires. You can see them in the DNA of everyone from the Gorillaz, to the Low End Theory, to the London post-dubstep parade. One of the greatest bands to emerge from the blurry nimbus between digital and analog, they still possess the ability to harness massive crowds of people–many of them reminded of their youth, before cold sclerotic cynicism set in and the Internet warped our circuitry. Twenty years deep, Massive Attack offer the truths that VH1 could never tell–even if Brett Michaels does a yeoman’s effort.