Review: Tricky; Hackney Empire / Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture
Tricky's mind can't freeze long enough to be recorded. Since Maxinquaye's trip-hop trigger, he's been too edgy, too impatient, to stay in the studio honing the noises in his head. So we have to make do with creepy, insidious affairs like last year's Pre-Millennium Tension. Meanwhile, Tricky has darted from Jamaica to New York to New Orleans, reconnecting to hip-hop and reggae sources, forging ahead, smoking spliff, dropping albums and eps like it's a natural function, like he can't help it. And sometimes he plays gigs, where he only needs to focus for an hour or two. Given free, focused rein, on his two nights in London his talent was undeniable. The first night, in Hackney, had been advertised as an acoustic, seated show, some kind of hellish "unplugged". But Tricky had already changed his mind. The night would be odder than that.

It began in darkness, and stayed that way. The most you could see was Tricky's silhouette. And he had decided to open this invisible concert with six new songs, a sneak preview on a scale he could only survive because his audience are so expectant of wilfulness - and because the new work was so good. The songs seemed to be tugging in directions prefigured by Pre-Millennium Tension - a move into the lyrical extremity of hip-hop, and deeper into his head, in lost, lonely love songs. "Fuck the music industry, let's take it back to the council flats - guns, grenades and baseball bats," he threatened in one song. "I think I would love you, if I tried to," co-singer and ex-partner Martina sighed in another. Every word toyed with the idea of identity in crisis.

It was a split dramatised by Tricky and Martina's on-stage relationship. Physically, Tricky clung to his mic-stand for support, rooted to the spot by a leg-brace, wobbling his head like some helpless puppet. Martina held her mic as if she were at prayer. Sometimes she sang with wracked pain, sometimes she left the singing to Tricky's rasp, looking her body into his groove, or moving towards him. Always in control, her presence gave the new songs their conviction. Sometimes, you couldn't tell one voice from the other. Sometimes, you couldn't see who was who.

Even this emotional claustrophobia was dwarfed by the paranoid sound Tricky had created to surround it. All that mattered after a while was the chittering beats at the music's heart, dropping to the tribal percussion of something close to "Sympathy for the Devil", as words were repeated into irrelevance, then abandoned. More than most examples of "the devil's music", it sounded truly magical, as if something deep had been carelessly evoked. The noise increased in density as heat in the venue rose. You couldn't see anyone, you couldn't remember when or how the song had started. All you could do was move, listen or leave. Until, as it seemed it would never end, Tricky slipped off. No one could have taken much more.

The next night, in Shepherd's Bush, the promotion of Pre-Millennium Tension determined a more conventional set-list. The stage was more visible from the start. Tricky spiced things up with a cameo from "Mad" Frankie Fraser, a psycho-parody of Phil Daniels' guestspots for Blur. But it seemed that the previous night's extremes might have been an aberration. Until one of those nameless new songs set things off again, returning Tricky to his new, nightmare beat - not hip-hop, jungle or rock 'n' roll, not anything precisely heard before. And as its volume rose, the lights flashed on for a few sacrilegious seconds, revealing Tricky in the act of shaking the drum-kit apart, as the crowd craned to see. It seemed the light could only have arrived because Tricky was too gone to stop it. When the lights at last revealed an empty stage, there was a rush for the doors, to get into the air.

And then, when half the crowd had gone, Tricky wandered back on to play the organ, like some mad phantom. It seemed as if he might be playing when everyone had gone, as if he could keep creating forever. Whatever soft, bourgeois adornment trip-hop has become in the hands of others was buried on these two nights of extraordinary new sounds.