October 18, 2011
Better Than: Playing with this bow and arrow.
Patience is a virtue Portishead fans must have in spades. Then again, this has never been a band for people in a hurry. So it took them three years to tour on an album released in 2008? What are you gonna do besides just see the damn show? Because, given their track record, who knows how long it will take them to put out another album and do another tour?
“Nobody loves me, it's true — not like you do.” It's simple, it's straightforward, it's easy to understand. Portishead's trippy and often jarring confluence of opposing musical ideas have plenty of lyrics that are easy to latch on to, even when the music isn't.
With this current tour, Portishead demonstrates again the importance of taking us gently by the hand and gaining trust before leading us into unfamiliar territory. For fans fattened on Portishead's densely layered first two albums, the sparseness of 2008's Third came as a shock, pointedly lacking the sort of easy toeholds that helped listeners gain their balance with Dummy and Portishead.
Yet the structure of last night's set seemed to anticipate this response, and to answer it by interspersing plenty of the comforting familiarity of their 1990s releases with newer material. This strategy made it easier to see Third's music not as a radical shift but as a logical step on the continuum.
In the background, the black-and white-imagery and live video of the band flickering and jumping like an old timey art film underscored the offerings: a mixture of old and new. The inappropriately-named Shrine Auditorium — which actually feels more like a warehouse than a place of worship — is long and narrow, which means that about 75% of the audience has a poor view. This made the video the primary viewing experience for most. Portishead's luscious misery would be better suited to a venue where the ceiling feels like it could close in on you, not one where it seems miles away.
In addition to spoon-feeding richer versions of material from Third, Portishead revivified older tunes. The loud-quiet-loud of “Over” was given an album-loyal treatment, but “Wandering Star” was reworked with an ultra-spare arrangement, with the band performing a reverent, almost-a-capella version and the bass barely a pulse under Beth Gibbons' quavering vocals.
“Sour Times,” meanwhile, was in fact the only sour note for fans hoping to renew their love affair with Portishead classics. Feeling a bit perfunctory — and performed without any visuals in the background — the band's big hit came across like an obligatory rush job. Still, every camera phone in the house was out and recording, and every girl in the house was loudly singing along, each baring her secret desire to wield some of Gibbons' power.
Portishead's journey has always been a trail of tears, but one that leaves listeners begging, “Take me with you!” During “Threads,” one of the show's emotional highlights, the repeated refrain, “I'm always so unsure” (which seemed buried in Third's hollow, reverby mix) popped, an example of powerful, plainspoken Portishead lyrics at their best.
Especially during closing song “We Carry On,” the essence of Portishead's magic was revealed. It's about the joy of having company to share the grief. The song is a throbbing, pounding ode to endurance in the face of desperation, but Gibbons seized an opportunity during its ponderous drive to leap from the stage and hug just about everyone in the front row. Seeing her deep pleasure so plainly juxtaposed against a song of particularly grinding intensity served as a perfect illustration of Portishead's core skill at creating buoyant misery.
Making up for lost time, with this tour the band is letting fans know that their absence was not their demise. Portishead is grabbing us by the hand, pulling us into their future.
The Crowd: The couple that spent most of the show making out had the right idea.
Critical Bias: I still remember exactly where I was the first time I heard “Glory Box.”
Random notebook dump: Right after “Glory Box,” overheard from fuckwit guy standing next to me: “Beth is like, an ugly chick, but she fuckin' rocks!” Dear fuckwit guy standing next to me: don't make me punch you in the face.
Set list below.
Chase The Tear
We Carry On