Saturday, July 12, 2014

WWDBD? goes to Montreux: Banks/Massive Attack

For a brief and somewhat tragic moment when the ticket arrived, I thought this was to be an evening combining the prog rock stylings of classically trained Genesis keyboard player Tony Banks along with the British trip-hop veterans.

I was, of course, startlingly wrong, but at risk of appearing totally befuddled, it wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of possibility, given that Massive Attack deliver stage shows that are in much the same league of spectacular rhythmic vibeouts as many in the prog canon. They - and I - of course know that’s a crass comparison, but it does hold some validity.

In reality, the Banks in question is Jillian Banks, the 26-year-old Los Angelino singer-songwriter being touted for great things. How and why, it must be said, is not entirely clear: her debut album won’t be out until September, and based on this maiden appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, she still has some ways to go when it comes to stagecraft.

There is, though, some slick work going on to grow her profile. Unlike the Cyrus child and her seemingly anything-goes public persona, Banks is taking - or being taken along - the enigmatic route: word of mouth leading to quizzical features in taste-making magazines that play up her apparent mysteriousness, while achingly hip radio producers add her to ‘Next Big Thing’ lists.

To add to the build-up, she’s now opening for Massive Attack at the Auditorium Stravinski, Montreux’s main venue for the last 21 years and a stage that has hosted some of the world’s biggest acts. And, yet, her music - surely the measure by which to judge a musical artist - is, to quote Pink Floyd, only coming through in waves (perhaps the result of being signed to the Floyd’s old label, Harvest). Despite this, you’re more than welcome to give her a call - her phone number is quite intentionally displayed on her Facebook page. OK, there are clearly publicity ideas still to be invented.

So, back to the Stravinski. Banks sashays out to an audience that is obviously much better in the know than me. Like a considerably less noirish Lana Del Rey, she applies a minimalist approach to R&B, supported by a percussionist thumping heartbeat-paced rhythms on electronic drum pads and a guitarist applying the lightest of touches with jazz-tinged major chords.

© Simon Poulter 2014

If you like, or in my case, tolerate bland R&B, it's pleasant-enough stuff, though to these ears, Banks’ vocals aren't as sharp as they might be, probably the result of poor mixing back through her stage monitor.

Musically there is a dark theme running through Banks' material, a thread that has run through her songwriting since she began at the age of 15 as catharsis following her parents' divorce. Thus, her opening number, Before I Ever Met You and, later, Bedroom Wall, depict teenage hell through the rarified prism of LA familial dysfunction, with others in her set marrying a combination of electronic sparsity with just enough R&B groove to get feet shuffling and signs of a rocking motion in the crowd.

With her album Goddess not due for another two months, it is quite something that Banks is drawing opportunities like this, even if she appears to be somewhat learning on the job.

That, however, cannot be said for the evening's main event, Massive Attack.

Even if their discography representing 26 years' output only shows a paltry five studio albums (though still positively prolific in comparison to the likes of Leonard Cohen or Peter Gabriel), theirs is still one of the most electrifying live shows you are likely to come across.

Electrifying for a variety of reasons. Don't, for example, expect Coldplay-style singalongs, even to the hits. You won't, either, experience a great deal of stage banter with the crowd. Because that's not what Massive Attack are about.

Now built around the core duo of founding members Robert '3D' Del Naja and Grant 'Daddy G' Marshall, they have seemingly made easy the sometimes precarious task of transforming studio-intense recorded material into mesmerisingly brilliant live performances.

I drew reference at the top of this piece to comparisons with the prog school, but even for a band so well rooted in Bristol's trip-hop culture, it's hard not to draw upon how Massive Attack as a live entity deliver the sort of captivating immersions in light-and-sound that the original Pink Floyd (yes, sorry, another mention) grew a reputation for at London's UFO club in the late 60s.

From the opening beats of Beatbox 101, the Massive Attack stage collective, which includes regular vocalists Martina Topley-Bird and dub-reggae singer Horace Andy, deliver a brooding showmanship that opens up the studio's layering to give breadth and cavernous depth to their music. Behind them and throughout the show, pin-sharp LED displays provide a running commentary on what's going on in the world, from newswire slugs declaring the latest news on everything from Gaza to Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes expecting a child.

© Simon Poulter 2014

Sourcing several tracks early on from their last album, 2010's Helgioland, which made a notable return to their more earthier early sounds, we are midway treated to the clinical opening beat of Mezzanine's Teardrop.

© Simon Poulter 2014
This is the track that has become almost too familiar thanks to its overuse on documentary soundtracks and, as the clearly musically well informed, but drunk, Germans standing next to me point out helpfully, "Dr 'Owse!". That, then, explains the T-shirt with Hugh Laurie's mug staring out from it, hanging from a lakeside craft stall.

Safe From Harm casts us back further in time, to the seminal Blue Lines - easily one of the finest British albums of the last 30 years - with Topley-Bird effortlessly substituting for the original's vocals by Shara Nelson.

It's a feat she repeats with undoubted prowess in the encore, with Unfinished Sympathy providing what would have been, when the single first came out, the lighters-aloft moment of the evening.

These days you don't even get electronic cigarettes aloft, not that you could see them amidst the ocean of iPhones and Galaxys being waved in the air for that modern game of cat-and-mouse, the YouTube posting and deletion. Amazing how the world can change in the space of just five albums.

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