Not together, but two of my all-time favourite artists played in London this month. Massive Attack opened the British Summer Time series of live concerts in Hyde Park on Friday 1 July. Elvis Costello and the Imposters played the Roundhouse on Wednesday 6 July.
I was there!
Two very different artists, but they had something in common at these two shows: they were both trying to find ways of addressing the self-destructive craziness that has overwhelmed Briatin – or should I say England? – these last few weeks. With more to come, sadly.
I saw Massive Attack earlier this year at Brixton Academy. It was an awesome show: atmospheric, bass reverberating, the beauty of the songs vying with the sometimes rather gauche, but powerful sloganeering. An event. You can read my scattergun review here.
I expected more of the same at Hyde Park, but maybe even more spectacular lighting to compensate for the inevitable loss of atmosphere playing in the open air, on a rather damp and chilly English summer evening. That didn’t really happen, and while the show was good, I was left slightly underwhelmed. The slogans were there, with more focus on Europe and the implications of the British vote to leave the EU. But they were all a bit obvious. And the lights were unambitious by today’s big show standards.
And the music? Again, a bit of a lost opportunity. They dug out an old song, “Eurochild” from the excellent “Protection” album, which they hadn’t played for over 20 years. A lament for the vote. And the emphasis throughout was on peace and harmony. And old colleague, Tricky, was brought back for one song. Reggae singer Horace Andy, who has embellished so many of Massive Attack’s great tunes, was literally wheeled out – in a wheelchair, as he has a broken leg – for one song, the mighty “Angel”. The band missed his fragile tones, which are such a lovely counterpoint to the power and darkness of the music. There were great versions of “Risingson”, “Inertia Creeps”, “Safe from Harm”, and a magisterial “Unfinished Sympathy” for the encore. But momentum was lost in the middle when they gave their good friends, Young Fathers, the stage for four songs. Now I like Young Fathers and they know how to put on a good show, but this interlude just didn’t work. Not for me, anyway.
So, yeah, of course it was good. My friends Jon and Shane were pretty enthusiastic about it. But I guess I hoped for a bit more from one of the great bands.
And then we had Elvis. And the Imposters, which was actually two thirds Attractions, with the inimitable Steve Nieve on any number of keyboards and Pete Thomas, ever-reliable on the drums.
Elvis back with a band, after all the solo shows and the talk. And back to a version of his early self – intense, visceral, biting, angry. A man of few words, but an uncompromising stare through the shades. And rocking like I’ve never seen him before. On a rocket-powered version of “Beyond Belief” he played a lengthy solo that Neil Young or Robin Trower would have been proud of. “I Don’t Want to go to Chelsea” got similar treatment.
The setlist drew heavily on the 70s and early 80s catalogue. The best era, though he has never stopped doing interesting things. The era when he had something to say about the state of the world. And it wasn’t pretty viewing through Elvis’s eyes. What he had to say was often brutal, vicious, but the tunes were so good, the music ever-mutating. And tonight, back with his greatest foil, Steve Nieve, he told us what he was thinking about the state of Britain and the world. Through his songs. “Sunday’s Best” (which segued into The Beatles’ “Polythene Pam”), “Oliver’s Army”, “What’s so Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?”, “Green Shirt”, “Night Rally” (with blazing searchlights), “Pills and Soap” and, of course, the ever poignant “Shipbuilding”. Elvis sang the latter with just a restrained piano accompaniment from Steve Nieve. It really was a cry for help, a plea for change. He remarked that he’d hoped that he wouldn’t still be feeling he had to play it. But he probably always will.
Yes, this was what the media love to call a return to form. A delve back into the classics, but with a purpose. Entertainment, but not just that. A howl of anger at what is happening, from the man who dissected the crumbling 70s and brutal 80s better than anyone. Much more allusive, subtle, than Massive Attack. And more effective for that. I love ’em both, but Elvis won hands down this time around.
Music speaks volumes.
Sounds like Elvis was fab, John. That was very much my favourite era, and I loved loads of the stuff that he played (thank you, Setlist). I see he ended with Man Out of Time from Imperial Bedroom, which I reckon to be one of his great albums, though sometimes overlooked. And I do love that song.
You’re right about Massive – there was something that just didn’t quite work, though I would still contend that Shane and I felt closer to it by moving nearer to the stage, and shutting out all the crap (selfies, narcissistic prattling, chugging of wine, marital rows) around us. As we agreed at the time, there was less of the intense focus and dark brilliance of the Brixton show – though I still marvel at the musicianship. I adore that monstrous, gloomy sound they create, and there were some truly wonderful songs. But yes, the flow of the gig did suffer through their generosity as hosts!
Eight of ten for me, though, and delighted that Shane enjoyed the Elvis gig.
I’d be 6/10 for Massive Attack, but I did choose to move back rather than forward, so that may explain some of my detachment. We are agreed though, that they are a truly magnificent band. Elvis was 9/10, the highest he’s been for some time.
Car Seat Headrest? Whatever next?
Nice to know you read my tweets! Daft name, good music.
You were there! I’m back in Toronto and back reading your book!