See more of Timothy Norris' photos in 'LA 101 with Thievery Corporation, Massive Attack and more.'
By any metric, last night's LA 101 at the Gibson Amphitheatre was a success–save for maybe the fact that the headliners didn't hail from LA. Of course, Massive Attack and Thievery Corporation share the Angeleno affection for fusion. And though Thievery Corporation receive their fan mail in D.C., their sound has always ignored geographic limitations. As apt to plumb scratch-and-spliff reggae as ragas, trippy electronic music, bossa nova, or jazz, Thievery's aesthetic mirrors the diversity of the food trucks parked outside hawking dosa, burritos, Ahn Joo and eco-friendly fast food.
1997's Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi established them as American trip-hop frontrunners, but they've since expanded into different terrain. Their most recent effort–2008's Radio Retaliation–had a more political bent, gliding across Afro-Beat, Brazilian lounge and New York house with cameos from Femi Kuti, Seu Jorge, and Louis Vega.
At the Gibson, their selections reflected mostly Indian and Jamaican inspirations. Vocalists Sleepy Wonder, Roots, Zeebo, and the cheetah print-skirted Sista Pat delivered staples like “Lebanese Blonde” and “Richest Man in Babylon” next to newer material like “Radio Retaliation,” “Numbers Game,” and the Kuti-less “Vampires.” Sleepy Wonder–in a Nehru jacket, a Hunter S. Thompson hat, dreads, and slacks–expertly controlled a crowd of what looked like hippies turned technology workers. The back-up singers shouted, “I feel like busting loose!” and a man in a Hawaiian shirt (and handlebar mustache) wriggled with joy.
For the 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 frontman mince around with his hair sculpted like David Bowie at the thinnest and whitest of his Thin White Duke stage, absent any of the menace he once so successfully projected. (Then again, I may have just heard the Entourage theme song several dozen times too many.)
Massive Attack's ability to pack the Gibson spoke to the size of the cult following that the band has developed despite releasing only a single album this decade. Earlier this summer, they 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 of Blur and Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star as well as enlisting Brazilian techno king Gui Boratto and dubstep star Breakage for remixes. That's evidence of the Bristol group's progressive intentions–both politically and artistically.
At this point in their career, Massive Attack could take the county fair approach with greatest-hits sets cobbled together from Blue Lines, Protection, and Mezzanine, and fans would still flip. Augmented by Martina Topley-Bird and reggae great Horace Andy, they instead leaned hard on more recent material. (Sadly no “Paradise Circus.”). Opener “United Snakes” burst out of a cloud of smoke and ferocious drums, setting the tone for a taut and ferocious performance.
While Thievery Corporation assemble fragmented influences into something like a block party, Massive Attack piece together an entire world of foul dreams, cold air and unsolved crimes. 3D sings with a distorted demonic whisper; Daddy G's mumbling voice is full of murderous revelation. Topley-Bird emerges with a feathery black sash and a painted-on gray mask and Horace Andy sang like a dazed shaman. In the wan theater light and smoke, the gray in his hair looked like powder–an oracular archangel from a Jamaican John Milton.
A series of epileptic LED lights added political subtext, displaying a string of sobering statistics: the number of radio stations broadcasting Rush Limbaugh, the number of plastic bottles dumped each day in Mexico, the total cost of the drug war. If you were there, you now know that Cuba has a slightly better life expectancy rating than the United States.
Of course, Massive Attack was always on point. You can see their traces in the DNA of everyone from the Gorillaz to the musicians of Low End Theory to the London post-dubstep parade. One of the greatest bands to emerge from the blurry nimbus between digital and analog, Massive Attack still possess the ability to remind massive audiences of their youth–before cynicism set in and the Internet rewired their circuitry.