The financially disastrous concert season that was 1996 precipitated a rash of think pieces in which pundits attempted to explain why music fans stayed away in droves from all but a handful of last year's major concerts. Many factors were cited in these articles, but the one mentioned most frequently involved the modes of delivery favored by contemporary artists. While entertainers from previous eras knew how to put on a show, these scribes stated, today's musicians are too sullen, self-absorbed and insular to keep audiences happy. As KISS's Gene Simmons told Westword ("KISS and Sell," September 5, 1996), "Frankly, I don't know why you'd want to see a new band with somebody in it in a wrinkled shirt who's looking down at his shoes the whole time."
This theory was put to a test last week at the two most widely anticipated shows of this very young year--Tricky, who appeared on January 21 at Boulder's Fox Theatre, and Metallica, which filled McNichols Arena January 24 and 25. The contrast between these acts' approaches could hardly be more stark: Unlike Metallica, which employed the latest advances in staging and pyrotechnics, Tricky barely bothered to turn on the lights half the time. The result was a pair of performances that were both worthy in their own ways. But although one lingered long after the music stopped, the other was rife with contradictions that became more disconcerting in the light of day.
The Tricky date seemed doomed to disappoint. The hype surrounding his swing through selected U.S. cities has been clamorous in the extreme--almost always a bad sign--and the critical hosannas that have accompanied the tour raised expectations to an impossibly excessive degree. Then, after appearing with Tricky in New York City, lead-off act Jeru the Damaja, profiled in last week's issue, vanished from the bill; speaking in Addicted to Noise, an on-line publication, Tricky chalked up his departure to "politics." Whatever the actual reason, the throng at the Fox (a mixture of Boulder-y intellectuals, local trendsetters and white hip-hop kids clad in rag-tag fashions cribbed from Yo! MTV Raps) went from looking forward to the concert opener to having none at all. Prior to the show's start, a DJ spun tracks by the Wu Tang Clan and Snoop Doggy Dogg--music that's estimable but painfully obvious. Listening to it, one couldn't help but fear that Tricky, whose brilliant recordings are tangled and ornate, would wind up doing karaoke versions of his best pieces a la far too many of his rap peers.
The arrival of Martina, Tricky's co-vocalist and right-hand woman, and four cohorts in possession of actual instruments caused this concern to dissipate somewhat; clearly, not everything heard that evening would be pre-recorded. In the beginning, though, there were no signs that the ensemble would be worth watching. The stage was so dim when the players assembled that it's a miracle one or two of them didn't trip over electrical cords and crack open their skulls on the dance floor. And even when the music started, the amount of illumination hardly changed. Occasionally, Tricky or his bandmates would be caught by a spot--blood-red seemed to be the color of choice. But even at those times that the area was at its brightest, precious few watts of power were used. People up close could see what was going on fairly well, but to those more than a few feet back, the show was an exercise in shadow play.
This murkiness provided an apt corollary for the mannerisms of Martina. When she was singing, she resembled a victim of post-traumatic stress syndrome; when she wasn't, she lowered her body to the floor and wrapped her arms around her knees, fetus-like. As for Tricky, he gripped the microphone stand like a man holding a lightning rod in an electrical storm. His head twitched back and forth with disturbing speed and his body jolted and spasmed at the most unexpected moments. But during those songs on which he didn't vocalize, he tended to fade into the background or disappear behind the stage's curtain. He suggested a ghostly apparition--terrifying when on the attack, but otherwise invisible.
In short, Tricky presented none of the elements that usually make a performance worth attending, save one--good songs. And in his case, this was enough. He drew most of his material from last year's Pre-Millennium Tension, a disc notable for its relentlessly moody tone. Live, however, cuts such as "Vent," "Tricky Kid" and "Sex Drive" became even more disturbing--staggeringly so. Rather than using only one or two musical ingredients per composition, Tricky drew from innumerable inspirations, blending hip-hop with rhythm and blues, rock, punk, even musique concrete. But his most daring gambits revolved around minimalism of the sort practiced by avant-gardists Steve Reich and Philip Glass. He and his band would take a single musical phrase and repeat it endlessly, layering atop it interlocking snippets that gave the numbers a gradually building momentum. The technique sucked a listener into a sonic vortex--a musical black hole, if you will--that was completely under Tricky's control. No voodoo shaman could have produced more awesomely negative energy than he did. The concert as a whole was an exorcism in reverse: Tricky grabbed hold of the relatively pure souls in attendance and introduced them to the demons of the world.
Metallica, too, has a reputation for living on the dark side of town. Although the combo has achieved the sort of across-the-boards popularity generally earned by ultra-accessible outfits, it has done so with modified speed metal, lurching ballads and a lyrical outlook that's alternately angry, aggressive or paranoid. Even last year's Load, which is easily the band's least-edgy opus, didn't skimp on the dourness. These guys don't have much patience for gooey love songs or sweet sentiments. Instead of playing songs, they pound them into submission.
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Still, Metallica's persona is considerable more down-home than is Tricky's. Members James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Jason Newsted sport a populist streak that's exemplified by their desire not to be isolated from their fans. Hence, the stage setup at McNichols was pleasantly egalitarian. It consisted of two multi-tiered platforms placed in the middle of the arena's floor, so that the musicians could play to virtually every side of the venue at one point or another during their set. In addition, standing-room areas were designated along the sides of the platforms, allowing a few hundred fortunate enthusiasts to get as close to their heroes as they would have back in the days when the quartet was playing clubs and small theaters. At regular intervals during the evening, the foursome would walk along the barrier that separated the ticket-buyers from the crew, shaking hands and slapping backs like Cal Ripken sharing his joy at breaking Lou Gehrig's endurance record with the folks at Baltimore's Camden Yards.
As this description implies, the tenor of the concert was overwhelmingly masculine. Perhaps 70 percent of those in attendance were male, and even the women at McNichols seemed to be bubbling over with testosterone. The stage behavior of Hetfield and Newsted made this demographic breakdown easy to understand: With their gritted teeth and tensed muscles, they called to mind masochistic self-abusers who get more enjoyment out of pummeling their genitals than from actually climaxing. Had this sort of behavior spread to the crowd at large, even people wearing hip waders wouldn't have been safe.
In spite of these exertions, the concert became a bit wearying at times: The old songs (like "Whiplash") blurred together, and the new ones (such as "King Nothing") came across like the musical compromises that they are. But listeners weren't given much chance to mull over such distinctions. Explosions went off every five minutes or so, with "One" being transformed into a mock firefight that probably had Vietnam vets in attendance diving under their chairs. But this display was a mere prelude to the big finish, which got under way as the band played "Master of Puppets" and "Enter Sandman." At first, various lighting displays and a couple of metallic risers appeared to malfunction; then, as beams began collapsing, two stage hands fell from ropes over the stage, and a third man was engulfed in flames. An instant later all the lights in the arena went out--and when a handful were "restored," Hetfield timorously asked the audience, "Are you all right?"
Even though hese theatrics, which were handled with rare subtlety and wit, highlighted the concert, they seemed oddly incongruous. Metallica, after all, is a band that prides itself on its honesty and spontaneity, but the latest tour is as carefully planned as anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber. (Even the between-song raps Hetfield delivers remain the same from night to night.) Moreover, the one sequence that seemed unrehearsed was, in fact, the most painstakingly calculated of all. What was best about the show was the shtick, while what stood out at the Tricky appearance was the music. Tricky was much less congenial than the Metallica boys: He went into an anti-weapon rant aimed at "you Americans" after someone innocently offered him some "ganj" (he apparently misheard the word as "guns") and introduced a shattering version of "Lyrics of Fury" by grumbling, "Here's a little barn dance for you motherfuckers. Yeehaw." But when it came to his art, he delivered something wonderfully, bracingly new--whereas Metallica churned out a spirited rendition of the same old thing.