The projection screen often displayed a grainy black and white projection of the band members and the lights were more muted than not. Neither the lead singer nor any of the other members seemed to want to draw attention to themselves by moving around much. For the audience, the visual presentation was not the draw however. It was the opportunity to bask in the chilly, claustrophobic, stark and occasionally neurotic music created by Portishead.
Following a lengthy absence from touring the US, Portishead splurged in 2011 hitting up North America and heading down under soon after. After their weekend performances at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Asbury Park, New Jersey (which they curated), Portishead sold out two nights at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom to the rabid delight of trip-hop fans.
Even with her stillness, Beth Gibbons captivated the audience, her inertia ensnared the crowd. The band’s performance was nothing short of perfect. In order to achieve this, Portishead’s preparation leans towards the meticulous, especially when factoring in that some of their equipment has aged. (For example, in an interview with Stereogum, Geoff Barrow said, “people will always come up to me and say things like ‘Why are you bothering with that old piece of shit kit, why now use one of these new ones?’”). But when on stage, Portishead’s groundwork ensures a great show.
Portishead could (and should) have played for hours as they crafted songs so beautifully it was spellbinding and devastating. “Machine Gun”‘s staccato percussion pulverized the audience as Beth Gibbon’s distilled the poison from her heart as she drew in close to the mike. Then into the fragile “Over”, her voice manipulating the audience, everyone found themselves with goosebumps arising prominently. Resounding applause greeted the band after it was over and, as the intro to “Glory Box” emanated, the crowd cheered even more. Their newest song “Chase the Tear” (originally released as a charity single for Amnesty International), broke the enchantment a bit with a throbbing rhythm conveying a need to move, not that it was unwelcome. The scritchy “Cowboys” followed, with Barrow working the turntables deftly, before the aggressive “Threads” closed out the main set. By the end, the uneasy song shows its colors. Gibbon’s trembling falsetto transformed into the wails of a banshee as she screeched out “I’m worn” and the well-honed guitars become a dizzying cacophony.
After a two song closer, I ventured back out onto the streets and realized Portishead had satisfied a deep yearning I did not even know I had. A performance of their dark music is not to be missed. Hopefully they will realize audience’s will clamor for them and hit the road again, with much less of a break in between.
Chase The Tear
We Carry On
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.