Concert review: Massive Attack's Mezzanine XXI tour at the Bell Centre

They took the stage in darkness and, after a jarring intro, dropped into a breezy rendition of the Velvet Underground's Found a Reason.

Massive Attack perform in Montreal on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. Christinne Muschi / MONTREAL GAZETTE

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The first article I ever wrote for the Gazette was a review of Massive Attack’s show at Metropolis on Sept. 15, 1998. Yep, 21 years ago Sunday, the Bristol trio rolled into our city’s best venue in the midst of trip-hop’s heyday.

Both Björk and Portishead had played the hall earlier that year, and Massive Attack, touring in support of its third and darkest album yet, Mezzanine, didn’t quite measure up, too caught up in its murky mood — at least judging by my review.

Two decades and change later, not much has changed. Massive Attack landed at the Bell Centre Theatre Saturday night on their Mezzanine XXI tour. And while they didn’t quite play the album front to back, they came close, making for a show that — aside from a handful of spirited retro covers — got bogged down by its premise.

The band was originally scheduled to play Place des Arts in March — tickets for which sold out in under 10 minutes, leaving many an unhappy camper, and complaints to that effect piled up online. The switch to the Bell Centre Theatre (after the show was postponed due to illness) was equally awkward. The official reason given for the change of venue was that PdA wasn’t available for the rejigged date — surely the fact that they could fit way more people into the Bell Centre Theatre had nothing to do with it.

Place des Arts’ capacity is 2900; 7270 fans showed up Saturday night to hear bandleader Robert Del Naja aka 3D, partner in rhyme Grant Marshall aka Daddy G and their six-piece band run through the hits — or lack thereof — on Mezzanine.

As mentioned, it’s a dark album, recorded by the members separately as the band was in the midst of an internal power struggle; Andrew Vowles aka Mushroom left soon after its release.

And by focusing on Mezzanine almost exclusively, Saturday, Massive Attack was robbed of the more luminous tracks off its first two releases, 1991’s Blue Lines and 1994’s Protection.

They took the stage in darkness, and, after an intro of mildly jarring electronic ambience and strobes (“It’s very seizure-y,” noted my concert companion), dropped into a breezy rendition of the Velvet Underground’s psychedelic gem Found a Reason.

It was a setup. Risingson came next, setting the Mezzanine tone as 3D and Daddy G traded lines over the sinister rhythm, interspersed with the telling chorus, “Dream on.”

It’s one of the album’s highlights, and it got things off to a good start. It was also one of the few moments Daddy G appeared on stage — he left at song’s end and returned on only a couple of occasions.

So it was left to bandleader 3D and guests — longtime collaborator Horacy Andy and Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser — to keep things moving.

They did their best. Jamaican reggae veteran Andy lent his quivering tenor to Man Next Door, his own See a Man’s Face and the late-show standout Angel, which drew cheers from the first notes of its album-opening bassline.

Fraser brought the light. Her crystal-clear voice elevated the groovy Black Milk. She stole the show in a mesmerizingly spare rendition of gorgeous hymn Teardrop, and tag-teamed evocatively with 3D on closer Group Four.

In between came surprisingly faithful covers of songs by The Cure, The Smiths, Pete Seeger (Where Have All the Flowers Gone, featuring Fraser) and Ultravox, all sampled on the album.

Those interludes provided some of the most dynamic moments of the night, as the rest of the time the band lingered amid the limitations of Mezzanine’s lugubrious haze.

Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis’s images of everything from Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Princess Diana to violent scenes of conflict in the Middle East (no trigger warnings provided) were interspersed with sometimes heavy-handed messages, many translated into French for the occasion, about surveillance and the dystopia of the present moment.

Among them: “On a cru que les donnés allaient nous libérer” (We thought that data would free us), and “Conspiracies are a conspiracy,” the latter also emblazoned on T-shirts at the merch counter.

All in all, Mezzanine, like Massive Attack, has aged reasonably well. Its brooding grooves and themes of alienation remain as relevant as ever. But the band’s lack of a lead singer and the self-imposed limitations of the set list, combined with the Bell Centre Theatre’s lack of atmosphere, made for an ultimately underwhelming experience — a minimal attack, if you will.