Portishead, The Shrine, Los Angeles, October.
Portishead is drugs, sex and…art. Not romanticizing anything, the tragedy is on full display. It’s what would happen to ravers if they got mature and/or a modicum of soul. Portishead are the darkest and most highly esteemed of so-called Trip Hop groups but in the past 10 years they had only one US show. This tour, they scheduled seven, which meant the drive to LA had to be made. They delivered in an almost unfathomably coherent and surgically tight performance.
Portishead is every critic’s love. Why?– Well, it’s because they are perfect. Arty, but not pretentious. Musical, but not indulgent. Melodic, but not poppy or overdone. A downbeat breakbeat that’s compellingly danceable but not overbearing. Accessible but not commercial–and even purposely media-shy. Famous and highly regarded but not pompous. Heart-rending, but not miserable. Ok you get it. Those weren’t just empty adjectives though, all those are true.
The biggest insight I got from the show was that they are the opposite of Sonic Youth, who along with His Name is Alive is the other female vocalist group that I give any significant ear time to. Sonic Youth is a collection of 4 (now 5?) good musicians and their image is they are a collective-they even trade off lead vocals. But Kim Gordon is Sonic Youth, the art, the energy. Without her, the band is not overly noteworthy (don’t be mad Thurston lovers!).
Before coming to the show, I thought Portishead was the same way. An iconic lead singer (Beth Gibbons) who croons painfully and soulfully, and is the center and focal point of any photo or video of the band. But it turns out, while she’s of course essential, Beth is in no way equal to Portishead. Her bandmates are not backing musicians, but they are artists as well. And Beth doesn’t hog the spotlight. She’s completely unassuming, stepping off for the instrumental stretches which were actually some of the best parts of the show.
So for the details? Many songs sounded similar to the album versions. The Glory Box vocals started out more annoyingly nasal than on record, but soon moved into the epic, with its heralded “Give me a reason to love you– I just wanna be a woman” lyric. Roads, the encore was likewise immaculately powerful its pain-filled classic version.
But many were also dramatically remade, and effectively, like We Carry On and Sour Times. Some of that is because of the trip hop nature, there are many samples and Portishead is trying to give a live experience. So a lot of things were played live, and sometimes differently. But in addition to multiple drumsets and keyboards, there were also multiple turntables. Notably the Machine Gun beats were done on a drumpad, not vinyl or a machine. I don’t know if that’s how they are on the album, but I wouldn’t have guessed it.
The only time Beth really got aggressive vocally was Threads. And it was intense. “I am alive when I sleep. Why am I not in all that I got?” This song is so amazing but it is so desperate that it also makes me want to turn away and not listen. I can understand not having the emotional energy to perform this type of song day in and day out. When it’s a stage, there’s a strange balance of performance and intimacy. For a Band with Portishead’s content, if they perform it too much, they’d have to eventually cope with the weightiness by being just a dancing bear. Or else the alternative, become so distraught with the weightiness of the content you deliver that you fall too deep into a pit. To share something intimate, you can’t share it often, so when Portishead plays, it’s special.
The standout song from the night was Wandering Star, I couldn’t imagine a more powerful performance. Things got stripped down for this one, the stage darkened and only 3 musicians up there. Beth sat and hunched over even more than her famously terribly posture usually does. Only the essential in their darkest tune. Unfortunately a guy nearby me was drunk and/or high and moved in front of me, kept raising his fist and doing some rave dancing. Dude, it’s an acoustic song about heroin overdose and depression–not Bon Jovi. Fortunately, eyeleids were made to close and I could just listen. Luckily he left the next song to go smoke outside. Courteously, he did invite me to join. I of course stayed and listened to the aural despair… “The blackness of darkness, forever.”
Music is Art. Not flash. And Portishead, by taking their time and remaining out of the limelight, have endured and become the highest standard–one that we can hope of other artists to emulate.
nb I usually just post on concerts once a year, a summary of everything I saw that calendar year. I write my impressions immediately after the show and save them as drafts. But Portishead is too important to wait on to post on till December.