Every year, they let a musician take over the Southbank Centre for a week of concerts, exhibitions and ‘happenings’ and call it Meltdown. That rather over-dramatic name implies the fare on offer will be such a colossal headfuck that your brain will dissolve. Not quite. But it’s always fun. Usually they get a lanky white fella to do it (Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Scott Walker etc) but this year they went down to Bristol, shook Massive Attack out of bed and got them to curate it.
In an interview before the festival, Massive Attack rather rashly promised a return to the spirit of their old Wild Bunch warehouse parties and “barrels of cider every night”. They obviously didn’t reckon with the terms of the existing Southbank Catering contracts which forced them to offer watery cocktails and San Miguel in plastic glasses on the Thames terrace. But at least we got to chill with Don Letts. Meanwhile on stage at the Royal Festival Hall stage, it was clear that 3D and Daddy G had no real intention of reliving their soundsystem days. Instead they did what they do best, hiding in the shadows and letting their guest vocalists (Stephanie Dosen for Liz Fraser, Yolanda Quartley for Shara Nelson, Horace Andy as himself) take the spotlight, while they summoned up a sound of smouldering awesomeness from behind a trestle table like a pair of sombre raffle-ticket sellers. They may still hate each other, but they get the job done.
The set was heavy on new material, the best of which was the airy, almost impossibly fragile ‘Harpsichord’ and the thrilling distorted thump of ‘Marakesh’. There were a few too many toothless drifters, but at least it all sounded more vibrant than 100th Window (which was ignored completely). The best stuff was from Mezzanine, sounding newly terse and wired, and suggesting that yes, Massive have taken note of where their old chums Portishead have pushed the Bristol sound.
The dotmatrix big screen backdrop, a collaboration with United Visual Artists United Visual Artists, was an impressive piece of protest art – at one point transforming into a airport departure board listing extraordinary rendition flights – until it started spewing out platitudes and statistics at inappropriate points in the music. I still don’t know exactly what ‘Safe From Harm’ is about but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have much to do with the cost of the Iraq war to the US taxpayer. You can push a point too far until it begins to dismantle your own sulky allure.
Anyway, Massive Attack’s best surprise, probably of the whole Meltdown, was sticking on fellow Bristolians Fuck Buttons in the foyer downstairs while everyone was filing out. There were a lot of couples fleeing back to relieve the babysitter with their fingers in their ears.