Blissfully rare are the occasions where musicians deviate from their accepted styles so fully that it would be tempting to put their pictures on milk cartons under the caption “Have You See Me?” Yet even when artists lose their direction on album, they’re usually smart enough to craft live shows that justify the price of admission if nothing else. Now playing the role of Exception to the Rule: Morcheeba, visiting Philadelphia on a springtime tour date in support of their sixth studio album Dive Deep.
To be fair, London’s Paul and Ross Godfrey must be commended for their ongoing fight for relevance, having appeared after the first wave of trip-hop and popular electronic music (with Massive Attack and Portishead copping all of the attention) and continuing without longtime vocal anchor Skye Edwards since album number five, The Antidote. Full of oceanic imagery and other environmental themes, Dive Deep is viewed as something of a return to form.
Tonight there’s a speakeasy/cafe feel to the much larger space of the Trocadero, a plan that seems amiss from the start. The venue never gets more than half-full (maybe), seated cocktail tables occupy part of the general admission area, and the opening act is Argentinian singer-songwriter Federico Aubele. He’s pleasant enough—occasionally joined by a female foil, his guitar fingerpicking is cool and unassuming, his lyrics all amor and corazon—but by set’s end the crowd is very un-downtempo, yelling out Morcheeba’s name as they might yell “Freebird.”
So here they come, a sextet led by the Godfreys on guitar and drums and their hired-gun singer Manda, a long stick of a French girl in a simplified geisha gown. Here they come… and there they go. The haunting and enticement one might expect from a trip-hop show are wholly absent, replaced instead by an almost countrified feel to many songs. The best translation is made in “Run Honey Run” from Dive Deep, sung by bass player Bradley Burgess as the band offers up hints of the Northern Soul movement. The worst may be “Never an Easy Way” from their acclaimed 1996 debut Who Can You Trust?, undermined by Manda’s slurred, dictionless vocals and Ross Godfrey’s yawning whammy-barred guitar.
Speaking of Manda, the story goes that she emailed the Godfreys out of the blue professing a lifelong dream of performing with Morcheeba. More power to them for giving the girl a shot, but while she sounds competent (or at least competently produced) on Dive Deep she’s downright embarrassing on the Trocadero stage. She slides out of tune atop the nicely played funk of “Trigger Hippie,” dedicates “Part of the Process” and other songs to the “hippies” and “hillbillies” in the crowd, and peppers irritating na-nas and doo-doos throughout tracks like “Blindfold.” Breathy, unengaging, and altogether weak, Manda might be the biggest problem with this live incarnation of the band.
Beyond that, this crew’s insistence on a jam-band delivery fails to jibe with the dark soul of the Morcheeba catalog. Performances of “Enjoy the Ride” and “Sleep on It Tonight” resemble stoned blues-rock; electronics (and big cheers for them) seem limited to songs like “The Sea,” “Who Can You Trust?” and “Blindfold.” This might be OK for the uninitiated, but for more committed fans Morcheeba’s promise and pedigree are lost on the highway somewhere, unable to fit the intimate-venue atmosphere foisted upon the evening. On this night Morcheeba don’t play downtempo so much as they play alt-country or AAA schmaltz—one wonders if this might be the sound of trip-hop as co-opted by The Cowboy Junkies or Mary Chapin-Carpenter, an altogether frightening proposition.