Portishead: a Fraught Beauty

Photo by Nate Watters


Such was the fervor generated by the arrival of Portishead‘s haunting music in the mid-’90s that the city council of the band’s home of Portishead—eight miles west of Bristol in England—had to publicly ask fans to stop stealing all the street signs with directions to “Portishead” written on them.


That same fervor (minus the criminal urge) was present last night as one of the most anticipated shows of the year began with a giant “P” slowly forming on the massive televisual backdrop of the WaMu Theater’s stage, followed by the opening bars of “Silence” throbbing like an old, malfunctioning black-and-white television placed too close to a woofer.


Every other camera-phone in the building was held aloft in the darkness as fractured live visual feeds of the group’s drums and guitar appeared overhead, flickering as if the wiring was faulty and shaking as if the cameraman had just downed a dozen espressos. The trio appeared as a six-piece with guitar, bass, drum, and keyboard duties flanked around the band’s original duo of producer Geoff Barrow—surrounded by snare drums, keys, and turntables—and vocalist Beth Gibbons standing in front of him in a simple black t-shirt and faded black jeans, taking center stage. There was a sharp cheer as Gibbons began to sing in her tortured cry but it quickly died down as everyone was intent on giving one of the most unique voices in modern music their full attention. It was a perfect replica of the band’s recordings. No-one else sounds like her. The crowd was transfixed.


Portishead makes music that celebrates and mourns the flaws of human existence, but their performance was flawless. Every splinter and fragment of their carefully crafted sound was meant to be there; nothing arrived by accident. The dystopian branding of the visuals on the giant stage backdrop was clinically executed. Black and white trees morphed into suburban train journeys morphed into oceans of inky lager, all changes unerringly synced with every note. They were true professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. Radiohead’s second drummer Clive Deamer drummed with the steadfast dedication of a Shaolin monk. For Gibbons to later lament “this uncertainty” in “Over,” the band is extremely certain.


During the 16-song set in which Portishead would play eight out of the 11 songs on their third and latest album, 2008’s Third, Beth Gibbons’ singing pose remained unchanged: Gripping the mic with both hands and slightly slouched on one leg, she slowly shook her head from side to side. After “Hunter” and “Nylon Smile” she mumbled “Thank you” and “Good evening” in what was to be only one of three exchanges with the audience that night.


Barrow’s brash turntable scratching was as 1990s as his collar-length haircut, but his scratching never wavered from that on their albums as green searchlights swept the stage. Images of hurriedly-crayoned cartoons played in the background that showed people falling from the sky to their deaths in the city below. During the instrumental parts of their set, Gibbons turned her back to the crowd, preferring to seek benediction at Barrows’ altar.


The sextet became a trio again for “Wandering Star,” Gibbons sitting on a stool with her bass player opposite, much like the obligatory ballad set-up in a traditional rock show, as guitar from their left shimmered in reverb. Gibbons’  aria was shackled by the incessant plodding of bass, like a warden marching a nightingale down a prison corridor.


After protest footage and a giant sunrise accompanied the AK-47 snares of “Machine Gun,” and after “Glory Box” had its glory, Gibbons suddenly broke the sadness with an unforseen smile and bumbling, “Thank you! You’re all really kind!” like an awkward mum as their set came to an end. Not one for pretending the upcoming encore was going to be a complete surprise, she muttered “Back in a minute!” before leaving the stage as if she was just popping into the kitchen to put the kettle on.


Portishead returned to play “Roads” and “We Carry On,” during which Gibbons “did the rope” and walked down to the front row to shake hands and—shock, horror—beam smiles at the adoring faithful, which was projected in fragments onto the screen above. The show omitted heavyweights “All Mine” with Beth’s slurred head-gear vocals and my favorite song “Strangers,” but perhaps that feeling of gentle disappointment is the best way in which to experience the fraught beauty of Portishead.


Set list:




Nylon Smile


The Rip

Sour Times

Magic Doors

Wandering Star

Machine Gun


Glory Box

Chase the Tear





We Carry On