Just before the cinematic purple and green lights come on at Webster Hall, it’s revealed that Tricky is already onstage. Swaying to the beat of a mix sampling the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams Are Made of These,” wearing a white tank top and dark sweatpants, his back is to the crowd.
It’s one of the last nights of Tricky’s first tour in the U.S. after a six-year absence. He’s promoting his latest album, Skilled Mechanics, with only a guitarist and drummer onstage and a DJ tucked offstage to the far right. The man is best known in America for having been part of the revolutionary band Massive Attack in the early 1990s, but he’s a hero in Europe and his native England for being one of the founders of the Bristol underground sound, also known as the trip-hop movement. Other artists from the same neighborhood include Portishead, The Wild Bunch and West Way Out, and the scene itself is broad enough to include musicians like America’s own DJ Shadow and Iceland’s most famous export, Bjork.
Twenty-one years after his solo debut, Maxinquaye (perhaps one of the most significant albums of my youth and that of many other ’90s kids), Tricky doesn’t look any older at age 48 than he did the last time I saw him in concert back in 1997—and he’s as energetic as ever. Over the decades, he’s collaborated with artists across all genres in the music industry and come out with 12 studio albums of his own, each significantly different in sound and style. For the diehard Tricky fan who never got over Maxinquaye or Pre-Millennial Tension (my personal favorite), his 2013 album False Idols is the closest thing to a throwback to those early days (unless you include random jam sessions with his old pals from Massive Attack like the recent track “For Nothing”).
Skilled Mechanics confirms Tricky’s legendary status as one of the most eclectic and experimental artists of all time, with a sound that fuses everything, including rock, electronica, house and a heavy dose of hip-hop. But it’s a bit different listening to the album at home versus seeing it performed on stage. The live version is much more on the heavy metal side, reminiscent at times of bands like Rammstein. And considering Tricky’s recent move to Berlin, it’s perhaps no coincidence that the controversial German industrial metal band’s vibe haunted Webster Hall.
Tricky began this concert exactly as I remember the last one I saw, nearly 20 years ago, standing in front of the microphone rapidly shaking his head, evoking his “Hell Is Around the Corner” video. Then he grabbed his shirt and fiddled with it, flashing his abs to the audience. It was initially perceived as sexual, with some of the female audience members hollering in excitement at our unlikely sex symbol, but after a while it seemed that his body language was actually nervous fidgeting. The dark blue lights were so dim it was hard to see him, but after a few songs he seemed to finally get comfortable on stage.
The audience, mainly Gen Xers and aging millennials like me, were decked out in black clothes and leather jackets. We were an even distribution of various scenes and identities—gay, straight, queer, black, white, Latino—all respectful of each other’s dance-skill level. It was a reminder of the utopian dream that artists like Massive Attack, Tricky and their predecessors like The Specials had advocated, the idea that someday we’d be a melting pot that looked beyond race and sexuality and simply came together for the love of music and dance. After his departure from Massive Attack, Tricky took this idealistic vision even further by challenging ideas about gender and sexuality in a machismo-driven world, especially when it came to hip-hop, including songs on his albums that were sung by female vocalists and varied the perspective of who was singing to whom, such as the song “Makes Me Wanna Die,” in which a woman sings about another woman. He also created album art and videos of himself in makeup and dresses, alongside his most well-known and frequent singing collaborator Martina Topley-Bird, who wore a suit and tie.
When Tricky said goodnight to the crowd after just an hour, none of us could believe that after waiting for six fucking years our hero would only give us such a small amount of his time.
Thankfully, it wasn’t the case.
After the hour set, only a few anxious, eager minutes passed before he came back for an encore, performing the rest of his new songs. He began to get increasingly playful, his arm reaching out to the audience, repeating over and over again, “Don’t be scared,” until finally flat-out inviting people to get up onstage with him. Almost immediately a mini mob took the stage, everyone from the girl getting down in a black fedora to the dude holding a beer and hiding his face with a T-shirt the entire time. At the peak of it all, amidst screams of glee, whistles, head-bopping and fist-pumps, a girl grabbed Tricky and tried to take a selfie with him. He grabbed her phone and threw it into the crowd, insisting that the audience put their phones away and “Be here now!” That didn’t stop other people from taking photos of the Tricky Kid (he lives the life they wish they did), including one fellow who straight-up took a selfie video of himself dancing on the stage. Tricky continued to ask that people stop taking photos of him, and soon another phone was thrown into the crowd, causing laughter and even more excitement.
The last 15 minutes were spent on one track during which he hypnotically repeated what sounded like the word “pain” hundreds of times, in an almost trance-like state. He told the crowd he had just obtained his visa and wanted to celebrate the occasion. In the end, he hugged almost everyone onstage, including the brats who had disrespected the phone rule, and told us he’d be back in New York City next year.
After the show, the lower level of Webster Hall was the scene of a dance party called “Saved by the ’90s,” which was a power hour mix of everything the decade had to offer: TLC, 2Pac, Marilyn Manson, Ace of Base, Smash Mouth, even Sugar Ray. It was ironic having both Tricky and ’90s American radio hits playing on the same night, because for the alternative youth of the day, such as myself, Tricky was a refuge for kids who wanted to run away from a lot of the aforementioned bands. Yet there I was, getting a full, healthy dose of the good, the bad and the ugly from the generation that closed out the 20th century.
Thank God for Tricky.