It seemed miraculous three years ago when Portishead re-emerged from the ether after an eleven year absence with their appropriately titled Third album, even more so that it not only lived up to its 90’s predecessors but in many ways transcended them. In typical Portishead fashion, the band went relatively quiet again almost immediately after all the hubbub around their return, barring some well-received festival performances and a pretty good single released in 2009 for the Amnesty International charity. Flash forward to now, and Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley and Beth Gibbons are making up for lost time and then some. After curating and headlining All Tomorrow’s Parties in Asbury Park, New Jersey, the trio kicked off their first North American Tour in well over a decade with a two-night residency at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Even though some may have clamored for a return to Roseland Ballroom for old time’s sake (their legendary PNYC performance took place there in ’98), their return to the Big Apple was well worth the wait.
The band took to the stage promptly at 9:30 following an opening set by Thought Forms. It spoke to the anticipation of their return that people were still lined up out the door and around the block to get in up to and maybe even after that. As the lights went dark and ominous video projections flooded the backdrop behind them, they set everyone into a near instantaneous frenzy with the spoken word sample and galloping drums of Third opener “Silence.” Aided by additional bandmates on bass and keyboards, they managed to give the song more menace and momentum than its on-album counterpart and successfully set the tone for an evening that would reinvent and reinvigorate their entire catalog.
Geoff had said in interviews that though Portishead didn’t much enjoy performing in the past, they got immense pleasure out of translating their new material in a live setting. That pleasure as well as the group’s surprising prowess was palpable through the 15-song set, particularly during monolithic closer “We Carry On,” which saw the whole group (and crowd) break into an infectious jam/dance off and Beth Gibbons diving into the audience. From such an infamously introverted group, these moments (which were plentiful throughout the night) felt like a surreal rush.
A similar rush came in hearing their older material bump elbows with the new. Beth and Geoff took over the stage for a spare, bass-driven, nigh acoustic re-work of Dummy depth track and fan favorite “Wandering Star.” This was just one of many showcases for the former’s inimitably smoky vocals. An even better revamp came in the form of set centerpiece “Glory Box,” where a massive beat breakdown during the song’s climax reminded us that dubstep upstarts like James Blake still owe someone a hefty thank you for their influence. Points to this song for also inciting the largest crowd sing along in a night full of them.
The band was brave enough to play with these classics and wise enough to leave others untouched. “Sour Times” is as sad-sack sexy as ever–though even Beth has to laugh to herself nowadays when she bellows “Nobody loves me”–and eponymous sophomore album highlight “Over” has aged into an even more timeless torch ballad. For a band whose career was birthed out of a now-decidedly vintage mid-90’s music trend, not one of their songs sounds dated in the least.
There will doubtless be nitpickers who walked away wanting more inclusions from Portishead, or feeling cheated that they didn’t get “Numb,” but such complainers were unrecognizable amidst the masses of spellbound people walking out of the Hammerstein as if they had just awoken from the best dream they ever had. It was certainly the best concert (and comeback) a lot of them had born witness to in years. Sour times never sounded so sweet.