ATLANTA -- A few songs into the set by trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack Sunday at the Roxy, Grant "Daddy G" Marshall put an arm around his smaller bandmate, Robert "3D" Del Naja, and whispered into his ear.
No one observing could discern what was said over the din of beats, guitars and samples, but the gesture said plenty.
The band, which had by most accounts nearly torn itself to pieces while making its dark and foreboding third record, Mezzanine, seemed again to be on friendly terms.
"I think we work really well and get on very well on the road. It's not so pent up," Marshall said before the tour. "It's when you get us in the studio that we all have our conflicts, because we're so passionate about what we do and everybody wants to get their ideas across."
Marshall, Del Naja and the third full-time member of the group, Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles, may be getting along famously, but the raw, aggressive tone that permeates Mezzanine crept its way into Massive Attack's set at every opportunity. The set leaned heavily on the album, but even tracks culled from the band's first two records, Blue Lines and Protection, sounded rougher and more jagged than the recorded versions.
The set opened with Jamaican vocal legend Horace Andy -- a longtime Massive Attack collaborator -- emerging from darkness onto the stage to the sound of a ringing, metallic guitar. He launched into "Angel" (RealAudio excerpt), the lead-off track from Mezzanine, and the room was soon buzzing. Del Naja, Marshall and Vowles then took the stage and continued their trip through the album with "Risingson" (RealAudio excerpt).
Marshall -- tall, slender and dressed in a white tank top that accentuated his ebony skin
-- and Del Naja -- short, skinny and wearing a black silk shirt that showed up his pastier skin tones -- looked like an unlikely pair as they traded deadpan raps with equal fervor. Meanwhile, Vowles spent most of his stage time behind the turntables, with a floppy hat pulled down almost over his eyes.
The threesome then vanished and Andy returned to lead the four-piece band -- which included a live drummer, guitarist, bassist and keyboard player -- through "Man Next Door," another track from Mezzanine.
That pattern continued for most of the set. The three main Massive Attackers would perform one song, then turn the spotlight over to Andy or the band's new honey-voiced diva, Atlanta native Deborah Miller. Raw, aggressive songs, such as "Inertia Creeps," were handled by Marshall, Del Naja and Vowles; older, more melodic songs, such as "Hymn of the Big Wheel" and "Unfinished Sympathy," were left to Andy and Miller.
The pace seemed to suit everyone just fine. Marshall, Del Naja, and Vowles exchanged warm smiles on more than one occasion. Marshall, who seemed in particularly good humor, even dropped rhymes from his old pal and rival Tricky's first solo album, Maxinquaye, into some Massive Attack tracks, including the title cut from
Mezzanine and "Daydreaming."
Even the most lush, danceable grooves, however, remained dark and foreboding. The slinky, sultry beats of "Safe From Harm" (recently featured in a Victoria's Secret ad) descended into angry, guitar-screeching clatter. As red lights flashed hyperkinetically behind the group, shards of noise streamed in from all corners of the mix.
The audience appeared to appreciate what they saw and heard.
"They're just dead-on brilliant," said 27-year old Ian McCombs, a native of
Sheffield, England. "I saw them about a year ago in London, but I've got to say, this show puts that one to shame."
Tia Weeks, another concert-goer, agreed.
"I've seen Tricky, Portishead and Morcheeba, but this is my first time seeing Massive Attack," said the 19-year-old receptionist from Stone Mountain, Ga. "There's no question Massive Attack blow them all away."
They saved the best for last.
With white lights strobing through the dark green smoke that hung in the room and the guitarist repeating a raging riff over and over, all the players took the stage together for the first time.
As the wall of noise grew, the silhouettes of Marshall, Del Naja, Vowles, Andy and Miller could be made out clearly at the edge of the stage. And then, just as the dense mix of sound seemed ready to explode, it stopped on a dime and the band was bathed in bright white light and the cheers of an ecstatic crowd.
"That was about the coolest ending to a show I've ever seen," an enraptured Deena Rolesnick, 24, said following the show. "I'm shaking."