What the fuck has happened to my ears? I feel like my head is inside a fish bowl, people are talking to me but their words sound like aural cushions, nothing is totally clear but I'm smiling, smiling a lot. I have never had such a musical assault as I did last night from Bristol band Portishead at Vector Arena. Pin-drop clarity was combined with awe inspiring volume and spleen rattling bass. From the opening bars of Silence the whole audience was sucked into the bands musical womb and there we all stayed, enraptured until the final bars of We Carry On an hour and half later.
Mostly jumping between Dummy and Third, with only two songs from their eponymous second album, this was no trip down memory lane. Instead it was a lesson in musical polygamy and effortless cool. The main players, Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley, were occasionally picked out in the lighting design or by onstage cameras but spent a majority of the night bathed in shadows, allowing the music and the impressive visuals to take centre stage. The only exception being when the three key players took centre stage for a stripped down, beat free version of Wandering Star, even then Barrow almost had his back to the audience whilst Gibbon's head was bowed so low her microphone disappeared into a curtain of hair. This lack of ego onstage takes the individual personalities out of the music and makes the band the entity, we are watching Portishead, not Barrow, Gibbons and Utley.
The rest of the band are technically hired hands, but it's hard to imagine a Portishead without Clive Deamer safe guarding the rhythm with his slick, super fast and highly technical drumming. He frees up Barrow to throw in beats, scratches, samples and all the other complex musical wizardry he does. John Baggot's keys added layers to the soundscapes and depth to the rhythm, the best example being the John Carpenter meets Kraftwerk back bone to Chase the Tear (released in 2009 as a charity single for Amnesty International). On bass Jim Barr seemed to effortlessly glide through whatever complex time signature was thrown at him. At the same time he continued the eternal search for the “brown note”, the note so deep and heavy that it makes you lose control of your bowels. And last night he came closer than any other that I have heard and for that he should be applauded.
It's hard to see Portishead as the trip-hop pioneers they were labelled as back in 1994, their doom, post-rock and hip hop inspired sound has outgrown the genre they invented. Musically, they have never been apologist or conformists, they have always followed their own path and it is with that in mind that their audiences are willing to put themselves in the bands hands and let them take them where ever they want to go. It is the sort of trust you don't find at your average “play the fucking single!” rock show. It reminded me of a quote from David Simmon (creator of the Wire) when asked about how the complexity of his shows story might scare off the casual viewer “Fuck the casual viewer.” was his succinct response. And here I say fuck the casual listener, you must allow them to take control of a couple of hours of your life, if you do this you will be greatly rewarded, the show, like their albums and like the band themselves are a complete package and should be digested, understood and enjoyed as such to get the full benefit.
The sound cushion around my ears has faded and I'm back to normal now, the physical memory of the bass is still bouncing around my insides and I intend to hang on to it for as long as possible.
For the purists amongst you the shows set list is below, I stole it from someone else as I am terrible at track titles, it's always “The fourth one of Dummy” or “The opening track from Third”. Thankfully Marty Duda over at 13th Floor is far more organised and put this together along with a proper review of the show rather than a hungover waffle, check it out: www.13thfloor.co.nz
- Nylon Smile
- The Rip
- Sour Times
- Magic Doors
- Wandering Star
- Machine Gun
- Glory Box
- Chase The Tear
- We Carry On