Tricky Gig Lacks The Magic Of Previous Shows

Poor sound mars trip-hopper's performance in New York.

NEW YORK -- Longtime Tricky follower Matt Eller certainly liked the show.

And he liked the new songs as well as the old.

He even appreciated the fact that he could better understand the artist's words this time around.

His big criticism: The ambient hip-hopper is better suited to a smaller venue.

"He's gotten a lot more coherent. At least now you can understand what he's saying. But the Hammerstein is too big a place for them," added Eller, who has seen Tricky live many times and who caught the most recent show July 21 at the Hammerstein Ballroom. "They should have played two nights at [the smaller-sized] Irving Plaza."

Tricky's multifaceted musical profile -- from trip-hop pioneer to blues-fusion experimenter -- has worked well on the three albums that the Bristol, England-born artist has released over the past three years. But his performance here last week proved to be a less-than-effective demonstration of his talents.

While the chameleon-like performer and producer is at a high point in his career -- he's riding a wave of success built on the groundbreaking trip-hop of his 1995 album, Maxinquaye, the caustic and dark sounds of 1996's innovative Pre-Millennium Tension and the rap and blues fusion of 1998's Angels With Dirty Faces -- Tricky's inclusion of all his musical styles at the July 21 show appeared forced.

Illuminated in beams of red, blue and yellow, Tricky (a.k.a. Adrian Thaws) -- who first entered the limelight as a rapper on trip-hop act Massive Attack's 1992 album, Blue Lines -- played for a little more than an hour and a half on this third stop of his current U.S. tour. But some fans thought that the show would have been better at a smaller venue.

At the show's after-party, held at an apartment downtown, Tricky's drummer, Perry Melius, defended the size of the theater. "We've played a lot bigger venues -- Glastonbury [a festival in England], places in Portugal, Lollapalooza. I don't think the Hammerstein is that big," said Melius, who added that singer/songwriter PJ Harvey would not be making surprise appearances for upcoming shows.

While Tricky is known to scoff at the idea of playing too many songs off his highly acclaimed breakthrough LP, Maxinquaye, he did offer up a few tunes from that record as well as songs from his latest release, Angels With Dirty Faces. Still, he drew mostly from music dating back to his two previous albums.

Yet the band had a hard time raising the energy level at the Hammerstein. Most audience-members -- a crowd that fell just short of the venue's 3,500 capacity -- appeared content to stand still or sit and watch from the mezzanine. A group of exuberant young women in the front row tried to dance, only to incur the loudly voiced wrath of attendees who preferred the prevailing quiet energy.

When Tricky was feeling particularly generous -- or perhaps when he felt the energy in the room waning -- he would plunk down a song off Maxinquaye such as "Ponderosa" (RealAudio excerpt), a track recognizable as background music in virtually every New York City bar three years ago. Singing the lyrics "I drown myself in sorrow, until I wake up tomorrow/ The illusion of confusion," touring vocalist Carmen Ejogo emitted a sound that harkened back to the sweetly acidic vocals of Martina Topley-Bird, Tricky's longtime collaborator. Topley-Bird, who is the mother of his 3-year-old daughter, has officially parted ways with Tricky's band, according to an Island Records rep.

On the songs "Pumpkin" and "Abbaon Fat Track," from Maxinquaye, and the raucous "Lyrics of Fury," from Pre-Millennium Tension, bassist Carrie Melbourne, drummer Melius, guitarist Mark Thwaite and keyboardist Gareth Bowen supported Tricky's croaking bursts of rap with a backbone of funky bass, hushed R&B and pulsating dub. Ejogo and additional vocalist Denise Elington provided background raps and lyrical counterpoint.

Highlights of the night included "Vent," also off Pre-Millennium Tension, with Tricky's Grandmaster Flash-inspired warning, "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge/ Trying hard not to lose my head /Can't hardly breathe/ I've been and seen." Also rising above the sonic clutter was "Amphetamine," which included a surprise cover of the chorus from Blondie's new-wave classic "Heart of Glass."

Still, Tricky was at his best when performing new material. Songs such as "Overcome" (RealAudio excerpt), from Maxinquaye, felt stiff and flat next to recent works such as the Angels With Dirty Faces track "A Carriage for Two," a tribute to his daughter that had the singer howling "I got a daughter" over and over, his diminutive form shaking and jostling its way across the stage in an energetic, emotional performance.

But missing from the show were other Angels With Dirty Faces gems: the lovely, Polly Jean Harvey-aided "Broken Homes" (RealAudio excerpt), for example, and "Singing the Blues."

The unfortunate choice of adding an echo effect to Tricky's voice on a number of songs only created confusion. On the song "Suffocated Love," the lyrics "She suffocates me/ she suffocates me with suggestion" ricocheted around the hall like an out-of-control boomerang.

This did not help matters and only served to further confuse the audience, some of which left dissatisfied and feeling cheated.

"It lacked energy. If you're gonna pay $20, you want to see a show," said Paula Quijamo, 20, standing outside the venue after the performance.

Future dates on Tricky's 17-date U.S. tour include stops in Austin, Texas, Chicago and New Orleans. The band will play its final shows in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 19.