Tricky – Live At Manchester Academy

Disjointed recreation of a classic

In one of those alarming musical landmarks that reminds you that you might be getting on a bit, it’s now seventeen years since the release of ‘Maxinquaye’, Tricky’s debut album. The genre-defining monument to trip-hop and outlet for all that seethes in the dark Bristolian heart was Mercury Prize nominated when it came out in 1995 – but it lost out to trip-hop’s other creative peak, Portishead’s ‘Dummy’. Despite being denied the accolade, the album’s intoxicating reputation, and the mercurial presence of its creator Tricky, is enough to draw a capacity crowd to the Manchester Academy on a wet and windy Saturday night to hear it being aired live once again on this three-date tour.

Still as Jack Sprat slender as he was at the album’s release, Tricky takes the stage launching without ceremony into ‘Ponderosa’, acknowledging the crowd with a raised beer glass. The volume of appreciation ramps up for Martina Topley-Bird, tonight resplendent in the most spectacular pair of glittery boots this side of glam rock, and whose honey-smooth vocals on ‘Maxinquaye’ framed Tricky’s malevolent improvisational style. As the gig proceeds, it increasingly becomes the Martina Topley-Bird show, with the singer providing the only reliable musical seam throughout, in contrast to an erratic and seemingly disengaged Tricky.

To be fair, it might be the sound issues that trigger him off. Initially he’s inaudible compared to Topley-Bird, a couple of intros begin but are then halted as Tricky consults the band as a restless audience looks on. Someone in the crowd shouts for him to “be happy”. Tricky replies, “I’m very happy, I have a good life,” but it’s unconvincing. He seems to be in a petulant mood and he’s all over the place. The insistent rabble rousing of ‘Black Steel’ eventually kicks in, giving everyone a lift and the band diffuse some tension and relax into their stride.

The momentum is short-lived, though. Tricky had well documented discomfort with the scale of ‘Maxinquaye’’s success and the fame that followed; it’s still palpable in the incessant tick that sees him grab and pull at his shirt throughout the entire gig – it seems to be like an adult security blanket and he can’t leave it alone. It’s a peculiar obsession but not the only odd behaviour we see. Some tracks begin and Tricky disappears from the stage for extended periods, or saunters over to chat to the ever-growing crowd at stage rear (Friends? Family? Babysitters?), leaving Topley-Bird to her own devices – which thankfully turns out to be liquid beautiful renditions of ‘Overcome’ and the ethereal ‘Aftermath’.

The music has lost none of its charged danger and the crowd willingly surrenders to its smouldering darkness and promise of kinky eroticism. With Tricky’s vocal thankfully restored to full recording volume on ‘Hell Is Round the Corner’ the recreation of the album’s addictive edge is in full effect. The audience undulates in appreciation, revelling in the crooked tour of Tricky’s internal dystopia.

Had it been consistent throughout, it could have been a classic. As it is, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that we’ve been at a full dress rehearsal for some other far more important event. With tickets at twenty-five quid a pop, fans could rightfully go home feeling a tad short-changed. The evening concludes as it began – with a stage invasion from the crowd deliberately orchestrated by Tricky, though this time he clambers down from the stage and over the crowd barriers to take a place in the front row, staying there to cheer on the fans that are in his place, gleefully goony dancing with the band. It may be an extended metaphor for something – though we’ve no idea what. The best Clash can say is that it was an experience much in the manner of the man himself, compellingly strange.

Words and photo by Nick Rice

Click here for a photo gallery of the gig.

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