Live Report: Tricky

Hammerstein Ballroom, New York City, July 21, 1998

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Watching Tricky perform is like staring at a lighted match burning at the base of a gunpowder keg. The fact that the Bristol-born trip-hop star ends nearly every song by thanking the crowd in a polite near-whisper only serves to punctuate his formidable intensity.

Even tonight's setting, a cavernous and austere metropolitan ballroom, couldn't prevent Tricky-along with his live band and singing divas- from transforming a potentially unforgiving environment into an experience akin to having a personal headphone mix. Scalpel-sharp sound and deep red and icy bluelighting added to the night's ghostly ambience.

Throughout the show, Tricky alternated between clinging steadfastly to his mic stand and stalking the stage in a small circle around it. At times facing forward, at others with his back to the crowd, he kept his head down, thrashing side to side in triplets while groaning out his dusty trip-hop vocals in an monotone growl that begged for attention. Tricky is more drum than singer-not your traditional beatbox, but a three-piece jazz kit perpetually dropping beats and rolls into a lush and tranced-out blend of guitars, bass and synth.

Though on the road in support of his latest release, Angels With Dirty Faces, Tricky blended a lot of old tracks with the new, as well as improvising on extended jams. But more than feeling like a collection of discrete segments, the entire hour-and-a-half performance played out like a sonic treaty on love, sex and madness. And the crowd ate it up, cheering each nuance and experimental riff.

Throughout the night, Tricky and his two singers-Carmen Ejogo and Denise Ellington, occupying the slot usually held down by Martina Topley-Bird- traded somber, soulful vocals with harsh and staccato jabs. In "Carriage For Two," Ejogo cooed a lullaby-like "God bless the child" as Tricky answered back, "I got a little black girl, and this little black girl's beautiful!" Other times, Tricky went it alone, as during his mesmerizing incantation of "She said she's mine, I know she lies" from Maxinquaye's "Suffocated Love," which coursed with restrained anger and grated like a CD skipping.

An encore performance of that record's "Pumpkin" proved a significant departure from the subdued album version as Tricky panted "I can't breathe!" like he was recounting a nightmare. Red lights pulsed a cardiac rhythm as the sound system bellowed like an army of soldiers marching through the singer's heart. The undulating thunder rumbled from one corner of the room to the other, crossing its own path, moving side-to-side, shooting back and forth, and pulling the audience into a thundering sound spiral.

Finally, wringing the last drop from his music-and driving the crowd to a frenzy in the process-Tricky ended with a highly energized "Tear Out My Eyes" off of Angels. The lights went black like a curtain, the crowd called for more, but the meditation train had come to a stop.