Better Than: No doubt the MGMT show was probably awesome, but if I could have split myself and watched both, I'm pretty sure this is where my betting money would still have gone....
Before even a note was played at last night's show by Thievery Corporation and Massive Attack, at least one aspect of the show already seemed like a success: the size of the audience.
Across the causeway on South Beach, MGMT's inaugural Miami show at the Fillmore actually sold out, yet thousands of people still showed up to hear these downtempo legends at Bayfront Park.
Sure, to an outsider that's probably no big deal; in larger music cities the bands attract clearly divergent demographics. In Miami, though, it's no small victory, and one that proves that, finally, there is enough of a critical mass of music fans to support such taste differences.
That both acts delivered surprisingly lively, riveting performances only added to the triumphant feeling of the evening.
Thievery Corporation, in particular, proved itself an actual dance band. On recordings, the band can sound globally clued-in, but also relatively subdued, with various world-spanning influences tucked neatly under a blanket of slick production. Live, the act is a different beast.
In this setting, group masterminds Rob Garza and Eric Hilton play second fiddle to a host of guest artists. Last night, this meant a full band and a coterie of coed vocalists, among them left-field reggae artists like Sista Pat, Lou Lou, Rotos, Zeebo, and Sleepy Wonder. At any one time, there was an average of at least eight people onstage.
They also, for this performance, almost entirely ignored the loungier and more middle Eastern leanings of its work, filtering things heavily inna dub style. A random outsider would have pegged Thievery last night as, perhaps, a reggae band in love with special effects, a rhythmic vibe that showed in the arm-waving dancing and long-skirt-swaying in the crowd.
The trippiness was only amplified by a long rendition of "The Heart's a Lonely Hunter," a collaborative song written with David Byrne that includes the repeated chanting of the lyric, "Welcome to my spaceship." They even dabbled in a bit of politics with "Vampires," which sounded almost like a number from a soul revue, but whose lyrics revealed a scathing criticism of the International Monetary Fund.
While fans often prize Thievery Corporation for their combination of form and substance, the heavy social commentary last night was left to Bristol, England trip-hoppers Massive Attack. Yes, their music can sometimes sound frothily pretty, even harmless -- let's just get it out of the way that yes, "Teardrop" is the theme song for the TV series House -- but more than a cursory listen yields a seriously moody bite.
In other words, there was no mistaking this for cushy latte music, even though vocalist Martina Topley-Bird's vocals are achingly beautiful, especially on a relatively stripped-down rendition of said "Teardrop." Instead, the group went for the jugular, with a darker song selection and riveting stage production that gave its material an apocalyptic tone. (Scroll down to the bottom of this review for a couple fan videos that have already hit YouTube.)
Massive Attack has never shied away from either political commentary or technology, and for this tour, combine both into a jaw-dropping light and visual show. The band performed in front of a backdrop comprised of a number of horizontal bands of light that could accomplish any number of tricks. Sometimes, they would light up in time with the music in different colored strips; other times, they would appear to form into shooting moving bullets or even pixellated images of riots.
What they spent most of the time doing, though, is broadcasting a series of haiku-like bits of words that, over time, would build up to impressionistic critiques of everything from the oil industry, to corporate America, to war, torture, immigration issues, and so on. The only complaint about this: For those of us towards the middle and back of the lawn, the smaller text they so often favored was often illegible, rendering the themes often totally lost on us.
When they did go for a bigger font, there was enough troubling food for thought there to render everything ominous. These are dark times, and they only sound darker when they're narrated by 3D's slightly detached singing and Daddy G's deep, staccato rapping. "Mezzanine," for example, looks more or less like a love song on paper. But last night it served more as a didactic tool, juxtaposed against huge flashing words in the background that include a quick succession of things like "cuffed," "cut me," "head," adding up to what seemed like a POW torture horror story.
The clear peak of the production drama came during "Inertia Creeps," which started out performed in front of some flashing, relatively generic headlines about celebrity gossip and the like -- until it became clear the number was customized for the show. This hit home just a few seconds in, when all of a sudden the screens blasted this Miami New Timesheadline about graffiti artist YNot's death, to audible gasps and scattered cheers.
This continued throughout the song, with South Florida's troubles, as interpreted by the media, somewhat shamefully on display. We were reminded of any number of problems that had been reported here within the past couple days: child abuse, strife over immigration laws, political squabbles, and more.
There was also a nod to New Times' current feature story, as these words rolled across: "Newspaper donates Lebron James Cleveland jerseys to homeless; Man says, 'Shit, I'll wear anything.'" Soon, though, another bit particularly drew laughs and cheers: "Karl Rove loves Marco Rubio."
It was an effective tactic that only drew the audience further under the band's spell, which ended about an hour and a half from its start with a one-song encore of "Atlas Air." Another abstract song that seems to be about the intersection of violence and commerce, this was again turned into an oblique statement on national corporate megaliths, with the band performing against a shifting backdrop of logos for the likes of McDonald's and Monsanto (Boooooo!).
The biggest boos and disapproval, however, were saved for the logo of BP, which stayed up on screen the longest and closed out the show. This was gloomy, yes, but wisely bridged a mental and emotional gap between the band, which hails from the company's homeland, and the audience, who lived in the face of the oil spill specter for months. Perhaps it was heavy-handed, but in a pop music climate of aggressive escapism, we need bands like Massive Attack to yank us back to a reality that needs work.
Personal Bias: In favor of Massive Attack, I've loved this band since the '90s for managing to combine my raging Anglophilia and love of hip-hop. A little bit against Thievery Corporation's favor in my personal esteem, since 2004 they always make me think of Garden State, which kind of makes me cringe.
Personal Bias #2: There aren't enough boos for Monsanto and its freaky soy and corn and steamrolling legal scare tactics. (Please don't buy their consumer version of Round-Up pesticide!) Any band that bothers to address this issue, even very fleetingly, is a winner in my book.
The Crowd: All 20- and 30-somethings (and older) with enough disposable income to buy $9 beers and enough respect for personal space to spread out. Of these, a large proportion represented the kind of chilled-out festival-goers who like to happily hula-hoop, dance joyously un-self-consciously in a way that Dave Chappelle would probably savage, and even practice group yoga. (Okay, the linked-arm tree posers were just over the venue fence -- but just.)
Overheard in the Crowd: "Whoa, this light show is so crazy, the machine's gotta be Japanese or something!"
Random Detail: You know what's great after a long workday? Being able to rent a folding chair to sit your ass down at a weeknight show for which you have lawn tickets Totally serious -- the $5 becomes very worth it during extended downtempo jams.