Situated in the leafy heart of London’s Hyde Park, the British Summer Time series of events is becoming one of those essential, annual fixtures on the calendar thanks to superlative organization, reasonable pricing (particularly for London), ease of access and eclectic line ups that appeal to a broad range of music fans. 2016 boasts headline slots from a number of immensely popular (albeit SonicAbuse unfriendly) headliners such as Take That, Florence and the Machine and Stevie Wonder, but it’s the opening day which is of particular interest to us. Perfectly balanced, Friday 1st July sees the ever-amazing Massive Attack take to the Great Oak stage supported by a dizzying array of talent including Patti Smith and TV on the Radio.
Arriving at BST, the first thing you notice is how well the organisers have managed to make this mammoth event blend into the surroundings. Securely-fenced (a particular necessity in these uncertain times), the festival footprint is surprisingly small and unobtrusive and the well-signposted gating system makes getting into the festival a breeze. It is a sad mark of the times that we’ve seen concert security, particularly around London, become almost as tight as that of an airport, with concert-goers carefully scanned and searched, a procedure that inevitably leads to longer queues. It is a difficult balancing act to keep a crowd of impatient gig-goers waiting as the searches take place and doing the job properly, but the security proved to be both friendly and capable, performing the job thoroughly, but maintaining a good rapport with the assembled masses and they deserve credit for making the process as painless as possible. Once through the gates, the festival is thoughtfully laid-out, with numerous well-staffed bars and food outlets dotted about the site. A number of stages provide entertainment, but the main focus is the mighty Great Oak stage, a beautifully constructed performance area that, in its short life span, has already played host to legendary acts such as the Rolling Stones and The Who. Today it features performances from TV on the Radio, Patti Smith and Massive Attack and the aura of expectation that surrounds the latter has reached fever pitch, not least because the band are performing with Tricky for the first time in twenty years or so.
Arriving at around Five PM, thanks to a lengthy journey down, the first band we catch is TV on the Radio. An eclectic act who mix experimental rock with dub, post punk, alternative and ambient, TV on the Radio are much-respected act and successfully bring a great deal of energy and community spirt to the main stage (the latter being a theme that runs through every act we see). Songs like ‘Young Liars’, which opens the band’s set, ‘happy idiot’ and ‘wolf like me’ come across really well as the sun slowly peeks out from behind an immense rain cloud (that does not quite unleash the downpour that it threatens as it drifts overhead). The band end, somewhat appropriately, with ‘staring at the sun’ and the band depart the stage to the sound of huge cheers from the front rows. It’s a memorable performance and the crowd swelled appreciably as the band’s set wore on.
A living, breathing legend, Patti Smith is on rare form as she takes to the stage. Opening with ‘footnote to howl’, her recital of the Allen Ginsberg poem is as raw as it is confrontational and it kicks off a set that dazzles with its brilliance. Over the course of the next hour, she pulls off a remarkable trick, suckering in the unfamiliar with the more relaxed, bluesy rock of ‘Dancing barefoot’ and ‘Frederick’ before building to the ferocious climax of ‘land’ and ‘Gloria. An extended jam in which Patti Smith unleashes her harrowing snarl, exhorting the audience to display unity in the face of the continuing fragmentation that lies in the wake of an exit from the EU, ‘land’ is a mesmerising performance that is one of the highlights of the whole day, whilst ‘Gloria’ (cheekily interpolating ‘rock ‘n’ roll nigger’) is a brutal rampage that leaves the unwary staggering away from the stage with almost comical looks of bewilderment as if they can’t quite believe this is the same woman who just regaled them with a particularly emotional ‘because the night’. Something of an “I was there” concert, Patti Smith is a true artist and her energy and passion provides an object lesson in the elemental power of music when treated as an art form rather than background noise.
Over on the second stage, Warpaint provide a more mellow experience for listeners and, as the guitars slowly weave into dense textures, tracks like ‘Disco//Very’ (somewhat slower than on record) gets bodies moving whilst ‘keep it healthy’ and ‘no way out’ demonstrate the versatility of the band, the latter track recalling the close harmonies and slow, meandering art rock of Low. The perfect music to soundtrack the slowly setting sun, Warpaint deliver a short, but deeply impressive set.
The day may have belonged to Patti Smith, but the night well and truly belongs to Massive Attack. Featuring a typically dizzying array of guests (although sadly no Martina Topley-Bird), it feels weird when the band walk on stage in daylight (their live shows typically shrouded in darkness), but, with the entire stage acting as a giant video screen, the performance is in no way diminished and the audience focus even more fully upon the power of the band’s intense, hypnotic sound. Opening with ‘United snakes’, a hazy, dark piece of music that seems entirely fitting for these times, the crushing bass of ‘Risingson’ appears next, plunging the whole field into a dark pit of paranoia and suspicion as the guitars stalk the field and 3D’s voice slithers through the mix. More communicative than normal, 3D then introduces Azekel, who provides the mellifluous vocals to ‘Ritual spirit’, only for ‘future proof’, a stand out track from a much under-rated album, to crush everything in its path with massive, grungy guitars howling at its centre. A huge surprise awaits next as ‘Eurochild’ appears as a eulogy to the Union (performed for the first time since 1998) before TV on the Radio’s Babatunde takes the mic to sing ‘pray for rain’. The first half of the set concludes with a huge cheer as Horace Andy, in a wheelchair thanks to a broken leg, appears to sing ‘Angel’. Possessed of a voice that could easily belong to the titular character, Horace receives a rapturous response and, as he’s wheeled away, he jokes that it’s straight back to the hospital for him. It’s a beautiful moment and a reminder that there’s a sense of community that lies at core of the Massive Attack ethos.
Massive Attack take a back seat next as the Young Fathers (who played chief support to the band on the last tour) take to the stage to run through the clattering aural nightmare that is ‘voodoo in my blood’. This is then followed by the Young Fathers originals ‘Old rock ‘n’ roll’, ‘shame’ and, the highlight of the Young Fathers’ set, ‘he needs me’. Easily justifying the hype that surrounds them, Young Fathers fit perfectly on a stage of this size and, combined with the Massive Attack sound system, they sound truly unstoppable.
Massive Attack take centre stage once more with a particularly brutal ‘inertia creeps’ before Tricky arrives on stage in typically low key fashion to perform a stunning ‘take it there’. It’s hard to understate the emotion of seeing the erstwhile Massive Attack comrade on stage once more and the only slight regret is that they did not take the opportunity to play something like ‘Karmacoma’ to further celebrate the occasion. Instead, we get a near-perfect rendition of ‘safe from harm’ (which elicits a cheer that could have been heard in space) with Deborah Miller providing vocals. An extended version of the song, the guitars that bring it to an end are amazingly powerful, bringing new depth to a familiar and much-loved tune. The end of the main set, the cheers continue until Massive Attack return with a string section to perform a version of ‘Unfinished sympathy’ that will echo in the memory of everyone present. An emotional climax to the show, not least because it harks back to the halcyon days of the mid-90s where the hope of a labour government was just around the corner after the despair of the dying days of the Tories, ‘unfinished sympathy’ has not aged from the moment it was recorded and the live string section gives the track a befitting gravitas that marks the occasion.
A landmark event for Massive Attack fans, the British Summer Time concert was the perfect antidote to the endless parade of depressing headlines pouring in from around the world thanks to a line-up of artists who emphasised the need for community more than ever in these troubled times. Set in the heart of this truly great city, it felt, for a brief moment, like anything was possible and, as the swirling strings of ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ reached a crescendo, emotions flowed freely through the audience. A remarkable event for all the right reasons, let’s hope that the organizers of BST 2017 have the courage to draw together a similarly impressive line-up.