Photos by Rena Kosnett
Claiming that I just happened to catch a Portishead concert during my recent visit to the UK would fashion me a liar. The trip was pretty much planned AROUND the Portishead show in Edinburgh. I probably wouldn't have gone up to Scotland at all if not for the concert; so for that reason, I thank Geoff and Beth and their booking agent. Scotland was gorgeous and friendly and aside from one little incident involving a chemical plant and my camera, which, through no fault of my own, almost got me branded a terrorist, everything there is glorious. Even the policemen are foxy and nice.
Portishead’s album Dummy was very significant for me 10 years ago (typical for many girls). Every single track is a fantastic duality of the glasslike, pristine vocals of Beth Gibbons and the ultra-styled programming, sampling, and string arrangements of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley; therefore, I was somewhat fanatical in the days leading up to the show—I refused to listen to any of their new material online (as my laptop wouldn’t be able to effectively present the songs), or watch any grainy digicam videos. I wanted to see them in a pure state, overzealous as that seems.
The New York Times calls the new material “propulsive” and “harsher.” Those are good words. I would also include "melodramatic."
I almost hesitate to write anything along the lines of a critique for this band because they are getting truckloads of skyscraper press. The buzz is deafening. We all remember loving them so much and now they’ve finally come out with new material and we’re all so excited and Coachella Coachella Coachella.
This attention is not undeserved, as Third reaches the outer limits of creative admittance and has a far more diverse make-up than either of their two previous studio albums. As I walked outside the Corn Exchange, though, there was a young man smoking a cigarette who approached me with the following words: “Did you just come from the concert? I’ve never been more depressed in my life.”
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I wouldn’t go that far, but my main critique is that the band takes itself too seriously, which manifested in their performance (as well as the title and certainly the very delayed release of Third). It doesn’t seem like they’re having fun. I know that life can’t be all teacups and moonbeams and Apples In Stereo, but there were reels of what looked like old home movies of the band members as frolicking children projected on the back wall during quieter, serious numbers, without irony.
Beth performed “Wandering Star,” which is actually a lighter, moderately bouncy track off of Dummy, without accompaniment, seated, in a white spotlight, with the rest of the stage black, totally bereft of the stellar musical breaks that Geoff arranged for that song originally. Funnily enough, the audience started clapping at a faster pace during this song, seemingly to encourage the band to pick it up a little.
In early April, Pitchfork compared Beth Gibbons to Ian Curtis, and basically asked Geoff and Adrian if they had to be on suicide watch during the making of Third (“Third is sometimes incredibly bleak, lyrically. Did you ever feel the need to check if Beth was all right?"). It’s easy to understand why.
But Beth’s voice is otherworldly, and her powerful delivery during “Machine Gun” and “Glory Box” pushed my heart rate into greyhound pace and started the pounding in my chest. The “Numb" vocal solo was effortlessly monumental, as Beth stretched out the closing phrase “A lady of war” to its crystalline shattering point. Being able to hear that song alone made the entire trip decidedly worthwhile.