Martina Topley Bird, Bush Hall, London
Monday 30 June 2003
Her part in making Tricky's 1995 debut album, Maxinquaye, one of the landmark albums for a generation is unquestionable. But in the years since, Martina Topley Bird has been a shadowy presence. Partnering Tricky, her former lover and the father of her seven-year-old daughter, on a succession of increasingly disappointing releases or making rare guest appearances on friends' albums, she has been an elusive presence.
The long journey to her own solo career, hindered, as she openly admits, by her own lack of confidence, is now at an end. With Alison Goldfrapp, one of the other female voices who helped to make Maxinquaye a cauldron of emotion and sexual intrigue, enjoying new prominence, all the signs are that the wait has been worthwhile.
Topley Bird's mystique as trip hop's avenging angel and the "black Dietrich of British soul" is more than mere hyperbole. Her forthcoming album, Quixotic, is a sumptuous banquet featuring classy contributions from the producers David Holmes and David Arnold, the speed-rock dynamos Queens of the Stone Age and, of course, Tricky himself.
The humid west-London night proves the perfect setting for the sweltering claustrophobia and sensual dramas at which Topley Bird excels. A starry audience barely ruffles her sleek composure. She's a slight figure with corkscrew hair, and at first her querulous voice recalls a homegrown Macy Gray, the weird pitch harbouring a veiled threat as she sings, "You don't understand/ It's like the rock in my hand."
Her band are gradually introduced - three female backing-singers, whose vocal arrange- ments surprise with unexpected counterparts and departures, and an eruptive seven-piece band. The latter, a blend of ominous beats, clarion-call clavinets, serrated guitars and euphoric horns, are led by the sharp-suited, mouth-harp-blowing human beatbox Rob Ellis.
Topley Bird doesn't do much, and the only time her between-song patter is intelligible is when she dedicates a song to "all the sinners in the world". But the effect is never less than mesmerising. Several times, the blend of swamp-based boogie, electro blues and Stonesy rock gospel recall the paths tread by the indie crossover specialists Primal Scream and The Charlatans. The difference is that this is a proper singer capable of relating her concerns with equal amounts of the exotic and the erotic.
The defiant, hotwired New Orleans backbeat and gasoline charge of "Too Tough to Die" contrasts with the forlorn pangs of "Music Box". "4 on the Floor" is a hotbed of carnality, while "Lying" is bathed in breathy imprecations, handclaps and finger-clicking cool. Her set-list exhausted, she plays "Need One" and "Lullaby" twice, but gives each dynamic new twists.
Drained but dazzled, the audience was left in no doubt that this Bird has taken flight; others will need more than a wing and a prayer to follow.
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