Live @ Hammerstein Ballroom, Midtown Manhattan
October 5, 2011
OK, here’s a version of the 90s I’m totally nostalgic for! The feeling that mass culture was somehow getting weirder by the second, in a deeply cool, art-friendly kind of way. The nebulous blip in time before Fred Durst ruined everything, when it seemed like the still-gestating influence of hip-hop could only make other genres of music more and more interesting, forever. Steeped in silly X-Files paranoia, suspecting that we were seeing and hearing things we weren’t supposed to be receiving. There was no magic communal box with which to confirm whether or not the rest of the world was getting these accidental transmissions from the underground, but, there had to be millions out there, man! (Spoiler: this did not end well.)
All of that embarrassing flailing above to explain how giddily teenage I felt at last night’s Portishead concert. It was their second night at the lovely Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan, coming off of an All Tomorrow’s Parties appearance in Jersey over the weekend. Everything about the show—from the wall of live video carefully manipulated in real-time behind them, to the thoughtful set-up of individual and overlapping spotlights on stage, to the crisp and perfect sound—was immaculate. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a live performer with a better voice than Beth Gibbons. What a heartbreak machine that woman is! Don’t get me wrong, the newest material they’ve put out has been ace, but hearing her note-perfect in taking on the old Dummy torchsongs like “Mysterons,” “Sour Times,” and “Glory Box” was gob-smacking. On “Wandering Star”, stripped down to an intimate duet with her and Geoff Barrow both crouching at center stage, she kept elevating her devastated moan, higher, higher, until the crowd just totally lost it. They lost it a lot. Every time her face flashed on the big screen, warped and ghostly from whatever distorted filter they were using, it had a grimace of emotional exhaustion. At the end of the show, when she bounded down from the stage to happily touch hands with the fans there, it was a slightly jarring bit of joviality. Wasn’t she about to sob?
As a live band, with five on-stage players beside Gibbons, Portishead are double impressive. It was on this level that material from 2008’s Third really hit. Hearing them work into krautrock grooves, two drummers pounding, on something like “Machine Gun", you were kind of amazed at the heaviness (it was ominously accompanied on the big screen by a slow crawl down some murderer’s warehouse hallway). Adrian Utley’s guitar solo on “We Carry On” is something you’d have never expected from their 90s work—aggressive and agitating rather than coolly removed. On material from their creepy-crawly 1997 self-titled album, Geoff Barrow did some live record-scratching, or most likely simulated it on some newfangled computer program. Rather than sounding dated, it added a compellingly huge dose of freaked-out noise to songs like “Cowboys” and “Over”. It all sounded dark and fresh in the face of the ironically smooth crooning, day-glo keyboard noodles, and tiny, reverbed ditties that our borough has recently produced. For elegance, they might never top that famous Roseland show with the New York Philmarmonic (that whole show lives on YouTube, by the way). For transporting power, I can’t imagine I’ll see a better show for the rest of the year.
Portishead - "We Carry On"
Chase the Tear
We Carry On