You never would have guessed it from the quiet way she took the stage on the first night of a two-night stand in Brooklyn, but former Portishead singer Beth Gibbons has history in New York City.
By the time Portishead arrived at the Roseland Ballroom on July 24, 1997 to record PNYC in front of a live audience, it was no big deal for a ‘90s band to include more gadgets than traditional instruments, even onstage. The electronica revolution was on the ups and black boxes were the new axes. But for a band of Portishead’s makeup to take on live horn and string sections (from the New York Philharmonic no less) and not have it come out as a bombastic disaster—on the contrary, it’s possibly the group’s greatest document—was a revolution all its own. PNYC is that rare live recording so well orchestrated that every song on it, regardless how good its studio counterpart, becomes how it will be remembered.
Gibbons stood at the center of that meld of beats, scratches, horns and strings, her voice neither old nor new, neither a mock of classic blues and torch singers nor an escape from them. It was her own beautiful, complex creation—a ruby dahlia blooming in the midst of Portishead’s gathering storm. It was a combination never heard before and, though often mimicked, never replicated again.
Six years later, Gibbons has moved on to a new collaborator, Rustin Man (former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb), and rather than try to repeat her Portishead years, she has smartly set out on a new musical path. You always got the feeling she wasn’t fully comfortable in Portishead anyway, that it was friction rather than accord (at least musically) that set the band apart. Rustin Man keeps the electronic manipulation to a minimum and instead arranges acoustic guitars, recorders, organs, violin—the smooth without the rough. It’s allowed Gibbons to smooth out her sinister side and explore newer, more melancholy territory. She brought that new vibe to St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn for a two-night stand that was toned down considerably (and understandably) from the major production at the Roseland, but it was a set that winked at that formidable past nonetheless.
Gibbons’ microphone was placed at eye level and angled down so that she could raise her quivering lips to meet it. For most of the evening she kept her fingers wrapped around it as if it were the only thing keeping her from melting to the floor. With each whisper, moan and wail, her face curled into a state of seemingly irreconcilable agony—a sublime piece of showmanship that for the first few songs transported everyone on hand behind Gibbons’ sorrowful eyes. She rarely left her post at the mic stand, and when she did it was only to steal longing drags from a cigarette against saturated backlighting.
When the music stopped between songs, Gibbons seemed to not quite know what to do with herself. “I’m not much for chatting,” she said with more embarrassment than demureness, “so I won’t bore you with conversation.” What little conversation she did offer was spiked with nervous giggles and happened away from the microphone. For a woman whose voice and devastating way with words appear to be her most intriguing talents, Gibbons seemed painfully averse to sharing them outside of song.
Her uncalculated coyness was endearing to the end, but being surrounded by other uncalculated moments as it was poked holes through the sublime set. Rustin Man’s little-big band hit all the right notes at all the right times while the music was playing, but the between-song changeovers were slowed by nearly constant instrument shuffling. The incongruity unfortunately reached its peak roughly the same time Gibbons did. After shedding the melancholy of early tracks like “Mysteries” and “Romance” for more sinister territory on “Spyder” and the purgative “Tom the Model”, guitar problems during a changeover killed the mood and left Gibbons fishing for cigarettes while Webb offered to “sit this one out.” Luckily, a roadie ran some wires and got the show moving again.
It was a forgivable loss of cohesion, yet it pointed to something deeper. Having been charged with finding sounds that would provide perfect accompaniment to Gibbons’ voice and lyrics, Rustin Man has done just that. What surrounds her in concert and on disc is a succinct arrangement of organic and electronic melodies that seamlessly envelope and become enveloped by Gibbons’ lovelorn vocals; much of Out of Season purrs like a 10-year-old housecat. It’s so seamless that the breaks in the façade stood out like flares. What set Gibbons apart in Portishead and, more precisely, on PNYC are muted next to Rustin Man. Where once she was a flower defiantly spreading her petals where no flower should, now she’s simply a colorful bloom in a manicured garden.
It’s similar to what happened to PJ Harvey several years back when she shared above-the-fold billing with John Parish. Her longtime collaborator was such a consummate musician that everything came out in its right place. Unfortunately, their Dance Hall at Louse Point came on the heels of the groundbreaking To Bring You My Love, in which Flood gave Harvey a sonic screech to go with her wail, and the seminal Rid of Me, in which Steve Albini all but shut the door on arguments for studio polish over in-the-moment sound capturing.
That is to say, Gibbons and Rustin Man’s Out of Season is an impressive album and when they’re on in concert they can melt a roomful of hearts (their hypnotic cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Girl” during the encore did just that), but Beth’s got history that can’t be ignored. Portishead’s raw emotion, which came from the juxtaposition of vocal agony and musical grandiosity, is now hard to find. Yet, it’s not altogether lost: When the slow march of “Funny Time of Year” reached its cacophonous pinnacle and stayed there for a spell to close out the regular set, the audience’s thirst for release was euphorically wetted—it was just never all the way quenched.