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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 28, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 43
Portishead resurfaces with stirring performance
Arts & Entertainment
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Portishead resurfaces with stirring performance

by Jessica Price - SGN A&E Writer

Portishead
October 24
WaMu Theater


Portishead's elusiveness could be the secret to their longevity. Extraordinary vocalist Beth Gibbons redefined torch songs over clicking, mournful beats which spawned a thousand trip-hop bands, but no one ever came close to the mysterious brilliance of Portishead. They released two groundbreaking albums and an acclaimed live release in the mid to late '90s - and then vanished.

Eleven years later, the band issued the radically different (but characteristically inventive) album called Third. Then they disappeared again, and suddenly - three years later - Portishead turned up playing the sprawling WaMu Theater on a short, highly selective tour of the U.S. New single 'Chase the Tear' won't even see a worldwide release until November (at which time, all proceeds will go to Amnesty International), and one can only guess when a new full-length album might see the light of day.

None of this mattered to the sea of faces mesmerized by Beth Gibbons and company on Sunday night. The band - expanded to six people, including two percussionists and heaps of guitars and effects - took the stage around 9 p.m. with three songs from Third ('Silence,' Hunter,' 'Nylon Smile'). A broad backdrop screen flickered with a stream of striking visuals. Before 'Mysterons' from Dummy, Beth broke from her characteristic show stance of eyes shut/shoulders hunched and gave the audience a warm hello.

Though the room was impersonal and warehouse-like, the grainy images of the band projected in real time on the huge screen felt like a satisfying close-up of the elusive Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley, and Geoff Barrow, who looked as if they'd barely aged since the '90s.

In fact, the WaMu Theater's wall-to-wall cement and towering curtains suited the stark music. The tension seesawed between ethereal and an ominous rumble. All three albums were well-represented, including Portishead's breakthrough debut Dummy with 'Sour Times' and 'Glory Box.' 'Wandering Star' was followed by the industrial repetition of 'Machine Gun' - a powerful contrast. Only 'Over' and 'Cowboys' from sophomore album Portishead made the cut for the 90-minute set. 'Chase the Tear' was the only new song played. The track (whose cover image resembles a torn piece of dark paper) sounds like an expansive Kraftwerk-esque soundscape, another new direction for Portishead.

The band finished with 'Threads' and a two-song encore featuring 'Roads' and 'We Carry On.' During the final song's long middle section, Gibbons impulsively dashed into the pit between stage and audience, her image projected on the big screen as she momentarily clasped hands with people along the front row. They pressed in closer to touch her arms and pantomime as if they were bowing to her. She smiled graciously, pressing forward as a sea of reaching hands and fingers was projected onscreen. Gibbons appeared there so tiny and delicate - but when she sings, she is undeniably larger than life.

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