Music: Where are you going, Tricky?

Tricky Astoria, London

Very few hip-hop acts would dare to open their sets with a song - "Blondie" - sampled wholesale from Blondie's "Heart of Glass". But then again, Tricky is no ordinary rapper. He doesn't so much rap as mumble, sigh and groan; live, his music excites more pogoing than head-nodding.

Strangely, Tricky's new album, Juxtapose (out next month), is his most accessible since 1995's much-acclaimed Maxinquaye. It's a flamenco-flecked, almost upbeat album which could well revive his flagging career. Tracks like "Bom Bom Diggy" and "For Real" boast melodies, suggesting that Tricky no longer equates songs with selling out.

Yet on Wednesday, practically every half-whispered word was buried beneath an avalanche of grungy guitars. Tricky is deliberately perverse. The moody Bristol-born artist has been lumbered with a trip-hop tag ever since he became known for the ghoulish soul of Maxinquaye, but trip hop has since become a safe and cosy genre, while Tricky's sound is as edgy as he himself appears.

He spent most of the evening tussling with his microphone, cigarette in hand, his sweat-soaked body juddering as if he had accidentally plugged himself into the mains. And God knows what he sang, but it didn't sound very nice. "Give me a blow-job and I'll smile," he informed one fan.

Which is more than he said to his own band. With Kioka Williams - Tricky's latest vocal discovery who replaces Martina, the mother of his child, and is signed to his label Durban Poison - he swapped little more than the odd cursory glance. Yet when their voices gelled, as on the haunting "Christiansands", the effect was mesmerising, with Williams's arresting roar complementing Tricky's hissed, venomous asides. Fittingly, the duo performed in pitch-black darkness, save for the odd strobe focused on their heads.

He has come a long way from the early 1990s when, as Tricky Kid, he first popped up on Massive Attack's classic Blue Lines album. Back then, he seemed no more than an engaging cheeky chappie with an idiosyncratic West Country rapping style. Now, as he stands with his back to the crowd, attempting to exorcise his internal demons, he seems to be at war with everyone and everything. "C---," he snarls to no one in particular as the frantic "Hot Like a Sauna" stutters to a halt.

His intensity makes for a fascinating evening. One minute he is jerking to rhythms only he can hear; the next, he's indulging himself on the guitar. Even when he's not involved, like on "Karmacoma", he dominates proceedings, muttering to himself while his nodding head dictates the beat.

The band make no attempt to compete with him. The gifted Williams, whom Tricky has described as "magical", sways from side to side like a bored teenager, while guitarist Mark Thwaite and bassist Wayne Numes give the impression that they're both nailed to the stage. But this doesn't stop them from fashioning some ear-bleeding riffs, transforming much of Tricky's nuance-riddled music into what sounds like Nirvana covering Massive Attack. You can make out the odd phrase - "I'm not a firestarter" for example - but the bulk of Tricky's murmured words are indecipherable.

Which must be frustrating for a man who, by his own admission, used to labour under the impression that he was God. Perhaps that's why he stops, mid-breath, during "She Said", as if to imply that he has had enough of shouting himself hoarse.

Tricky is not like other men. No one knows what he'll do next, least of all himself. He seems to make it up as he goes along.

'Juxtapose' is released on August 16 (Island).

Nicholas Barber is away

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