Portishead's Beat Goes Boom
It’s been four years since Portishead’s live disc came out, and that was a short year after their self-titled sophomore effort was released in 1997; in other words, it’s been feast or famine with this highly acclaimed trip-hop group. Meanwhile, fans (like myself) have been anxiously awaiting their next original collection of haunting songs of love and pain drenched in as much knob-tweaked atmosphere, effects-heavy guitar, understated deck scratches, and chilling vocals as Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley, Geoff Barrow and company can muster.
Luckily, the DVD version of their packed New York gig has hit the shelves to soothe the fan and collector that resides within us all of us like-minded beat miners. It’s plenty packed, too—besides their extraordinary July 1997 Gotham City performance, the DVD also contains a couple of short films, an acoustic version of “Wandering Star”, and all of their videos. Which means that, unless you already had it on tape somewhere (or downloaded it for free off of one of the countless peer-to-peer Napster knock-offs on the Internet), you get to own the highly creepy, underwater stop-motion spectacle that is the “Only You” video. Watching Gibbons’ head jerk and sweep out of time as some boy flips and spins in pain or pleasure (it’s hard to tell) while both are under the authoritarian eye of some panoptic overseer is quite a trip, especially if you’re watching it late at night with the aid of some kind of intoxicant.
“Only You” is indeed a haunting dream noir short, much more unsettling than the almost ‘80s-flavored promo video for their biggest hit, “Sour Times”, which features the fog machines, repeat shots, dudes in dark sunglasses, and conspiratorial intrigue that was so characteristic of much of that decade’s music cinema (yeah, I call it that; it is film after all). The “Sour Times” video was a version of Portishead’s original short film, called “To Kill a Dead Man”, that was specifically tailored for promotion of their hit single, and both are a hoot to see, although the latter is probably the one you’ll be spinning the most if you’re in a watching mood. It’s interesting to check out primarily for its score, but Gibbons turns in a sympathetic performance as a woman who’s medicated into oblivion after her high-rolling sugar daddy (Utley) fakes his own assassination, only to have the tables turned on him in the end. It’s fun to watch these talented musicians (indeed, the score for “To Kill a Dead Man” is one of its strengths) get their acting itches scratched, especially when you note that some of their other videos, namely “Numb” and “Over” got the low-budget treatment: filled with either old Super-8 footage or singing-into-the-camera setups, those two videos make you quickly realize that Portishead’s emotional, powerful tales of the heart deserve better cinematic treatments. After all, they are some of the most visual songs ever written.
Which is why the videos for “Only You” and “All Mine”—an unsettling, almost Lynchian short featuring a homely girl singing Gibbons’ tale of obsessive love in front of a mostly geriatric orchestra—are so much more rewarding than the short film, “Road Trip”, which, although comprised of a cool mix of Portishead’s best songs in instrumental form, is nonetheless just B-roll footage of UK streets, freeways and signs. It works well as a supplemental piece, something that could perhaps be flashed on the screen behind the band in concert, but fails as a solitary endeavor. Unless of course, like I said earlier, it’s late, you’re with friends, and slightly, uh, altered. And even then, you still lose the power of what Utley, Gibbons and Barrow can do.
Which is where the concert comes in.
The coolest way to feel the Portishead vibe while viewing the Roseland concert is to keep an eye on the action in the background, to watch how the relentless hook of their music propels not just the audience but also the casually dressed New York Philharmonic Orchestra and a five-piece horn ensemble into a fit of head-bobbing. Adrian Utley has achieved a musical masterwork of atmosphere here, and you can feel it in the sweeping tracking shots that cruise around Gibbons and the floor-level stage, the stoned peace of the multifaceted New York crowd (which seems to be barely able to squeeze into the room taken up by the Philharmonic), the deferential silence before each tune, the instrumental accents that each musician adds to the spare arrangements.
Utley had the whole Philharmonic to work with, but like the talented guy that he is, he didn’t stuff them into every second of his tunes. Rather, the non-percussive instrumentation drops in and out of the songs like snatches of a dream: a piano keystroke here, a knob tweak there, an amplified Stratocaster downstrum here, a three-note bass ramble there—they all serve to accentuate the ever-present beat, the one everyone can’t stop from making their necks bend.
Meanwhile, watching Gibbons close her eyes and dig deep to find the characters that populate Portishead’s songs is something to witness: she doesn’t sing, she inhabits. Blessed with a voice that is equal parts sweet and snarl, her sinuous power is felt on both their louder tunes, such as the awesome “Cowboys” and “Western Eyes”, and their softer ones, like “All Mine”, “Half Day Closing”, and “Glory Box”. And although the film usually highlights her vocals, it misses some crucial moments, such as the shriek at the end of “Half Day Closing” (probably her toughest turn at the mike) or the gut-wrenching crunch of the version of “Sour Times” found on the album. Don’t get me wrong, the DVD’s version is just as cool to watch as all of the other tunes Portishead glides through on that crowded stage, but the album’s revision of “Sour Times”, a distortion-heavy stomp that degenerates into a full-on rock jam at the end, is simply riveting and would be something else to see live. For whatever reason (maybe they didn’t have the footage?), it’s missing.
But altogether, the DVD is a must-have for Portishead, trip-hop fans and anyone else interested in seeing how beat music can be reproduced live, how it can become more an art happening than a conventional concert, how a steady, pounding drum pattern can really get its hooks into you and stay there. Just check out the violinist bopping his head when he gets a rest from playing, the cello player who breaks out into a little body rock as he plays, or the crowd of fans chilling on the Roseland floor, nodding in unison to the universal power of the bass, the tom, and the snare.
It’s a smooth journey into urban trip-hop cool, and it’s definitely worth the time. Grab it.