The 90’s were an impressive time for music. Even though the masses might remember the decade more for the Backstreet Boys or Alanis Morissette, dozens of splinter genres burst out. Bands from the creeping corners of industrial, the unheralded halls of alt rock and the bleeping bombast of electro and many more splinter genres were rife throughout the underground. One such splinter genre commonly referred to as “trip-hop” was the home for two of the decades most auspicious and ultimately rock solid bands: Massive Attack and Portishead. The label thrown around mostly by fans was never truly embraced by the bands it was slapped on. Both Massive Attack and Portishead eschewed any concept of convention and with it, dug deep into the darker side of their respective sounds. After only a handful of U.S. shows in 2008 following their most recent album Third, Portishead returned to Los Angeles. This show at the extra large open-floor Shrine Expo Hall was the only Portishead performance actually in Los Angeles and open to the public in nearly fifteen years (the band did a private show at the Mayan Theatre prior to their headlining Coachella slot).
For anyone with a ticket, it was well worth the wait. The standard stated trio of vocalist Beth Gibbons, guitarist Adrian Utley and multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow here was expanded into a sextet. The group’s musicianship is quite simply immaculate: Utley strikes chords with dexterous poise, Barrow hits a variety of triggered instruments with unwavering focus and Gibbons is a haunting siren. As a whole, the sound is so well balanced, so focused and pristine, if you didn’t hear the subtle nuances of their performance, you might think it was all a recording. It’s that good. The band takes the care in cultivating their craftsmanship to its logical extreme. Each song is rendered nearly to perfection, as a large video wall behind them plays abstract mixed footage and live processed footage of them on stage.
Third tracks “Silence” and “Nylon Smile” get the evening off to an ominous start. “Mysterons” from their classic album Dummy takes a small bit of turntable scratching and turns into an eye-opening intro. Utley’s jazzy progressions ascend as Gibbons’ frail and soft voice enrapture. The band shows the full might of their technical muscle on “The Rip” and then plays the sold-out crowd on hand one of their most beloved singles, “Sour Times.” The band leaves for “Wandering Star,” leaving Barrow on bass sitting in a chair directly in front of Gibbons while Utey makes delicate guitar noise from the far left of the stage. The song is reduced to its fragile, blooming essence. It’s hard to imagine the song’s mesmerizing music being any more introspective, but this accomplishes just that. The words, “Wandering stars / for whom it is preserved / the blackness, the darkness, forever.” tumble out of Gibbons and reverberate throughout the hall.
Things get noisy on “Machine Gun” and the methodical syncopated electronic drums and synth finale helps the band fully capture the pulse of the audience. “Glory Box” heads the other way, delving into the band’s most sexy to-and-fro bassline. Gibbons’ call of, “Give me a reason to love you / Give me a reason to be / a woman,” is the most confident statement of womanly defiance of the last twenty years. One new song, the irregularly high BPM (relatively speaking) of “Chasing the Tear,” is played. The band heads for their darkest material on the ending of the set proper with “Cowboys” (from their self-titled second album) and “Threads.” “Threads” ends with Gibbons screaming ferociously, “I’m tired” after establishing the song’s caustic chorus, “I’m always / so unsure.”
The set ends with “Roads” and “We Carry On,” arguably the only the way it really could end. “Roads” is the band’s most powerful composition (Geoff sits the performance of this one out), lush with thick synth sounds as Utley layers in graceful chords and Gibbons delivers a heart breaking performance. The song’s interrogative refrain, “Can’t anybody see? / We’ve got a war to fight / Never find our way / Regardless, of what they say,” is enough to truly question the stability of the world we live in daily. How good do we really have it? Why do we find it so okay to rest on our laurels? Worse yet, why are we so apt to let others in control edge us away from challenging the world around us to be better? The simple poetry of the song evokes vital questions that seem ignored by daily existence.
That’s what good art should do, summon the seldom-viewed beauties of the world and have the courage to point out those things we’re afraid to confront. Portishead deserve all the credit bestowed upon them and much, much more. Here’s to hoping there’s new music on the horizon from them, hopefully sooner than another decade from now. But then, if they take a decade, it’s because a decade is exactly what capturing such essence requires. We can trust them to deliver quality all in good time.
Chasing the Tear
– encore –
We Carry On