Closing their very own Meltdown, a week of shows that had encompassed everything from silent discos through ageing psychedelics Gong to the alienesque Grace Jones, Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall could be forgiven for feeling a touch of pride.
They’d been nervous on their first show last week, Del Naja said, but were now humbled by the calibre of artists who’d graced the South Bank Centre in the week since.
But Massive Attack, on something of a hiatus of late, weren’t selected as curators arbitrarily. Showcasing the best of their back catalogue, they also offered pointers for their fifth album, due in 2009, that suggests their own story, though well advanced, is not yet over.
Wearing a navy blazer with yellow embroidery as if to mark himself out as the band’s first officer on deck, Del Naja, though joined on stage by the prodigal Marshall, was indisputably the lynchpin. More often than not he’s the front man, and he otherwise lurks somewhere towards the back of the stage behind a selection of mysteriously half-lit electronics, controlling and monitoring.
With drummers to port and starboard, new material began the set. Del Naja’s vocals still cleave to his sinister, FX-laden whisper, familiar from the likes of Inertia Creeps and Dream On. Gazing out expressionlessly at his audience, he would occasionally begin dancing like a toy soldier, while Marshall’s powerful figure drawfed him to his left.
Subdued lighting and largely dark outfits suggested a band taking themselves rather seriously, a notion underlined when the dot-matrix display behind them crackled into life with all sorts of subtle-as-sledgehammer political musings encompassing Guantanamo, 42 Days’ detention and illegal military campaigns. It was one of several visual elements that served to prevent anyone slipping into narcotic (or nostalgic) slumber during the downtempo set, the other being the revolving door of guest vocalists for which Massive Attack is well known.
Best of these, the returning Horace Andy, with his unmistakable falsetto and deliberate vocal embellishments, was back to thrill the all-seater house with slo-mo dancing. Smartly dressed in a black suit and grinning mischieviously, he owned the stage whenever he set foot on it.
The girls were represented by the wispy figure of Stephanie Dosen, resplendent in a white feathery dress, in the role of whispery singer-waif (previously the preserve of Tracey Thorn, Elizabeth Fraser and Alison Goldfrapp, amongst others) and Yolanda, a startling presence stuffed into a shimmering outfit that cast her as a possible future encounter for a crew of the Starship Enterprise. Her parts were largely those originally sung by Shara Nelson.
Dosen’s take on the whoop-inducing classic Protection was all her own, while Yolanda seemed to be in homage to Nelson in Safe From Harm, summoning a performance that was eerily reminiscent of its original singer’s sound.
At the end it was Unfinished Sympathy that still brought the house down and the audience to its feet for two encores. Angel, with Horace Andy returning, opened the first of these to dramatic effect, but it was followed by a new one that struggled to energise the crowd. Just as well then that the band soon returned for Karma Coma – a fitting end to an evening that reminded us not only why Massive Attack were given Meltdown this year, but why they mattered in the first place.