Portishead – Shrine Auditorium, Oct. 18

Portishead’s first album, Dummy, was a revelation to me.  While they certainly didn’t invent trip-hop, I see it as the masterpiece of the genre (with apologies to Massive Attack’s Protection).  The beats were heavier, there was more guitar, and then there was the icy vocals of Beth Gibbons.  They created a mood, the soundtrack to a modern noir movie in your head.  It was an album that I couldn’t stop playing when I got it.

Fast forward 17 years, and before Tuesday’s Portishead  show, I’m telling my girlfriend that this would probably be the only time I got to see Portishead in my lifetime.  They’ve put out three albums in the past 15 years.  They tour even more infrequently than they put out albums, the last time they did a tour in the US was over a decade ago.  I’m not sure they’ll ever actually release another album (though they’re rumored to being working on one), which means they’ll probably just play big festivals, which I usually don’t attend.

So, combine that rarity and my admiration for their music, and well I was pretty jacked about this show.  And I did not leave disappointed.

We got to the Shrine Auditorium part of the way through opener Thought Forms.  The auditorium is cavernous and from the look of its parquet floor, it must have been a gymnasium in the past.  A second level above the auditorium floor was already rung with people.  We ended up going outside for the rest of the opener’s set, their dirge-like instrumentals didn’t really appeal to us and they seemed to get lost in the enormity of the room.

Having played plenty of festivals, Portishead showed no such troubles.  They owned the room.  The setlist veered more to their last album, Third, which makes sense given its by far their newest material.  Those songs have a spacier vibe than the older material and there were a few times I had the thought that I was hearing a cross between hip hop and Pink Floyd (this is a good thing).  But, for me the highlights were in the material from the aforementioned Dummy and their self-titled follow-up.  Sour Times, the song that broke the band into semi-fame in 1994, was given a tempo boost and a more bouncy musical accompaniment (it could have been the Daptones playing with Gibbons) than the melancholy album version.  I think quite a few people didn’t even realize they were playing it until the chorus as it didn’t get the sort of raucous greeting some of their other “oldies” did.  The LA Times reviewer yesterday hinted that they sped through the song because they wanted to get back to their new material rather than play the hit song.  I didn’t see it that way, I just saw a band showing their versatility and putting a new spin on one of their most recognizable tracks.

The highlight of the show though, was a stripped down version of another stand-out from Dummy, Wandering Star.  The trio was joined for most of the night by three additional musicians, but for this track it was just the three of them.  Barrow left his turntables and keyboards and took up a guitar, kneeling before Gibbons.  Gibbons seemed to be singing directly into his guitar, her voice mingling with the sounds emanating from Barrow’s instrument which took up the slack for the vinyl scratching and samples of the original.  The bassline from the original was only a faint heartbeat here.  Gibbons voice was the star, and this song more than any other spotlighted her spectacular voice, clear while at the same time conveying a sweet fragility.

Besides the band, the other star of the show was the tremendous visual package that accompanied the music.  The only other show I can think of that did such a good job with visuals was a Jesus & Mary Chain show back in my early 20s.  It was not so much a light show, like the good one Lykke Li did earlier this summer, though there was a little of that, but mostly a use of a large video screen that was an integral part of the show.

Cameras had been placed at various places on the stage, so that you could get a black and white image from the stage magnified onto the video screen.  The first shot of the concert was the hi-hat cymbal, and throughout the show other images such as Gibbons singing or a bass drum pedal view (which I thought was really cool) were projected, often in connection with other visuals (see the image at the top of the post with Gibbons superimposed with an instrument meter).  At times, the images would pulsate and rotate in concert with the music.  Squiggly lines that danced with the beats appeared at other times.  The most captivating visuals came during The Rip.  Another track from Third driven by a brooding synth groove, the screen showcased hand-illustrated images that continually morphed from one thing into another, often with disturbing results.  It was as if Gerald Scarfe (of The Wall movie fame) had been given a box of crayons.

The concert ended with an encore of Roads and We Carry On, combining another Dummy stand-0ut with my favorite track from their newest disc.  As the house lights went up, a camera from behind the drummer’s view showed the cheering crowd and gave a cool view of what the band was getting to see during their set (last photo).  If this was indeed the only time I ever see Portishead, I’m satisfied that I saw a great performance by them.

Video of Wandering Star:

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One Response to “Portishead – Shrine Auditorium, Oct. 18”

  1. Looking Back at 2011 « Nothing to Write Home About Says:

    […] more and learn more about him.  That’s the mark of a good concert.  Honorable mention to Portishead and to John Vanderslice.  I didn’t write about the Vanderslice show, but I’ve seen him […]

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