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‘We can’t let the bigots and racists back into this situation’: Massive Attack at BST

Massive Attack are not what you would call a ‘festival band’. Yet following a week of British political turmoil, disturbing reports of increased xenophobic and racist abuse, and terrorist attacks across the globe, their headline spot on the opening day of British Summer Time made absolute sense.

The band were joined by over 20 years’ worth of collaborators, from early favourites such as Tricky and Deborah Miller, to Azekel and Young Fathers, guest stars on the Ritual Spirit EP, released January this year. Together the artists conjured a foreboding trip-hop score to the political and humanitarian chaos of 2016. Massive Attack’s social engagement is dense and heavy- throughout their ninety minute set, yesterday’s headlines, political parties, lines of binary code and corporate logos jitter and flash across the Great Oak stage’s screen.

Eurochild, written at the ‘birth of the European Union’ in 1994 is given a reprise for the first time since 1998 – now ‘as a requiem’. It is here Del Naja calls for people not to be further polarised by ‘populist bullshit’: as he states, ‘As the sons of immigrants, we are both very disappointed with the situation. […] We can’t let the bigots and racists back into this situation.’ The mixture of sombreness and anger felt in the fallout of Britain’s decision to leave the EU brood in Ritual Spirit, Risingson’s dub-haze, and Angel’s menacing bass-line (featuring Horace Andy with leg in cast, grooving away in his wheelchair).

Young Father’s mini-set, including Shame and new single Voodoo In My Blood, ratchets up the intensity. The Scottish duo are more brash and in your face live than their low-fi studio recordings would have you believe. Then, after a melee of strobe lights for an explosive version of Safe From Harm, Unfinished Sympathy – one of the band’s best known and loved tracks – soothes the show to its end. The rendition is especially stirring, with moving images of refugees accompanying the song’s beautiful, soaring string section. As Massive Attack take their bow, ’We’re all in this together’ is writ large behind them. With David Cameron’s hackneyed mantra rendered pathetically empty, Massive Attack reinforce there is strength in unity and tolerance.

The headliners were complimented by a stellar support cast. Patti Smith put a similar political bent on proceedings, speaking out against gun laws as well as urging to the Hyde Park crowd to ‘Control [their] own fucking destiny’ before dedicating Pissing In The Wind to Julian Assange. Meanwhile Ghostpoet and Warpaint captured the atmospheric, murky tone of the day’s music. The former played a mellow set with hits from his Mercury-nominated album Shedding Skin. The latter owned the festival’s other stage, marrying an excellent rhythm section with unearthly, siren-like harmonies as they played a succession of hits including Elephants, Undertow and Keep It Healthy. The crowd fed off the quartet’s genuine enjoyment at being on stage in London’s Royal Park. From the half-time jolts of No Way Out, to a new song affirming they are still on top form, and trippy Disco // Very, Warpaint were utterly entrancing.

There were also notable performances from emerging artists. Sofi Tukker began proceedings on the small tent stage, incorporating drum-pads made from notebooks and Portuguese rapping into guitar-riff-driven club. London wordsmith Loyle Carner showed great potential too, relishing his slot on the main stage where experienced indie band TV On The Radio were later well received.

The first day of British Summer Time was full of superb music but also provoked serious political thought, underlining art’s power to offer a glimmer of hope and joy in dark times.

9/10

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