Tricky played two gigs in London one week in 1997 when he seemed touched by genius – playing crepuscular, original sounds, on stages so dark he could barely be glimpsed. In the years since, the man who illuminated Massive Attack's debut, Blue Lines (1991), and his own trip-hop classic Maxinquaye (1994) has gone through creative darkness, consumed by dope-fed paranoia, and making incoherent records from US exile. The excellent Knowle West Boy and this year's Mixed Race see him healed and home. He is even set to record again with Massive Attack. Rejuvenated, he has repudiated those gigs played in the shadows. "I'm comfortable in my own skin now, comfortable with being in the light," he's claimed. But with Tricky, such things are relative.
We first glimpse him in what look like white prophet's robes – actually baggy white trousers and a top he soon discards to show off his lithe body. On the spy movie-ominous "Past Mistake" he almost vanishes in blue-lit shadows, his voice a murky presence. "Oh, Jesus Christ... " are his first words. When he stamps his foot in frustration, clutching his head then shadow-boxing the ceiling, his old fears seem to assault him. The crowd are on pleasurable edge as with few current rock performers, as Tricky maps his unique psychic terrain. He grabs at his crotch, kneels for wordless prayers, and finishes in a proud strut across the stage.
It has been a magnetic few minutes, made from feral charisma and edgy musical surprise. The problem is Tricky can't keep it up. By "Overcome", he is already taking a cigarette break, smoke rising incriminatingly from the back of the stage, while female co-singer Franky Riley takes the strain. In his insouciant indifference to gig norms, he recalls The Fall's Mark E Smith (who left the building mid-set to have a smoke the last time he played here). It's the Bristol way, too, to share the effort, and take your time. Tricky's comfort throughout his career in deferring to female singers does him credit, in many ways. As with his coquettish, slow belly-dancing later, he has lost his macho fears. He shows off his toned body in a vulnerable, sensual way. His beautiful face adds to the androgynous aura of a man who grew up around inner-city poverty and violence. "I ain't no gang-banger," he sings, and few have flown further mentally from such pressures.
Another woman, his support act Terry Lynn, sings Motörhead's "Ace of Spades", the pretext for a friendly stage invasion intentionally recalling old gigs by Tricky's heroes The Specials. The man who has been a paranoid, damaged loner so long even goes down among the fans himself, as if finally desiring to be part of the crowd. The final moments are a riot of half-glimpsed sight and sound, Tricky leading swaying companions in swinging pencil-torches to sirens' shrieks. He seems as happy as he has ever been, when he can be seen. But the minutes where he prowls and growls across that stage alone are far too brief. After 16 years of stardom, Tricky's self-esteem is still too fragile for him to step into the spotlight.