Tricky @ Metro Theatre, Sydney (19/02/2011)

DJ Hezekiah may as well have rocked up at 7pm, pressed play and headed home in time for tea. The “warm-up” to Tricky’s Sydney show is a young man who, granted, has an excellent taste in music. For around two hours he does bits and bobs with some turntables and a laptop. Most audience members are either seated or have their back to him. This isn’t a warm-up it’s glorified background music for general chit-chat.

If it’s a tough call to figure the point of the DJ, then it’s an existential quandary when it comes to deciphering Tricky’s performance. Who gets half the audience on stage for an extended, even more extended and then fuck-it-let’s-just-keep-going version of Ace of Spades when we’re merely 20 minutes in and the atmosphere is still barely lukewarm.

Too few beers have been drunk, stage invitees shuffle around self-consciously then Tricky forces his band to push the song out to f-o-r-e-v-e-r. It carries on so long people are even asking to get down. I mean really, when normal people get the opportunity to get on stage they don’t say ‘can I get down now thank you I’ve had enough’ – they enter into hand to hand combat with some man mountain in a day-glo vest to fight to the death for the sake of their 15 allocated minutes

It’s pretty awkward, but there’s a sense its all part of the plan and Tricky’s asking if we’ve got the balls to do something about it (we don’t). Like when he gets swallowed up by the crowd and completely disappears mid-way through Early Bird only to reappear at the bar with a beer and some hangers-on. All well and good if it wasn’t for the fact his deserted band is left to carry the encore alone and we’re all wondering whether the person we paid to see is coming back (he doesn’t).

It might seem lazy and disrespectful, but it’s orchestrated with an intensity bordering on the despotic. Tricky’s carefully drawn agenda sees him cast as a provocative ringleader. He waves a hand here, throws a glance there and on one occasion issues a curt admonishment to ensure the band’s ebb and flow stays true to his demands.

Fortunately his cohorts seem pretty used to all this. In particular Tricky’s singer du jour, Franky Riley, handles the unpredictability with aplomb. She’s a scrap of a girl with large hooped earrings, shoulder blades as sharp as a flick-knife and a roughness that suggests she may cut you up if the mood takes her. She takes responsibility for most of the vocals and while she struggles with the ghostly vulnerability of Pumpkin, she snaps and hollers her way through Vent like she owns it.

As for the man himself, when he’s good he’s very, very good. Slight and lithe he channels the rolling, lolloping thud of You Don’t Wanna through outstretched fingers and a boxer’s muscular twitch. He moves with a threatening gait that sends prickles of apprehension down the spine. And despite his whispering vocal occasionally getting lost in the mix, there’s no mistaking the darkness that creeps in the room when he stalks Riley during Maxinquaye’s Overcome.

It’s not entirely clear why Tricky opts to take such a strange, erratic path. Maybe he feels it offers a more truthful account of who he is i.e. songwriter/producer/backing singer…not wholly showboating frontman. Maybe he was trying to push our buttons, see if we could be goaded into some good old-fashioned punk insurrection. Then again maybe it was all a load of self-indulgent rubbish.

Either way it was a divisive performance that generated some heated post show debate and that’s never a bad thing.