Portishead – [Live]

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Some shows just feel like they are destined to become released as live recordings. The set list, sound engineering and an otherwise indescribable atmosphere that is somehow able to work its way onto the recording all contribute to what makes a memorable live record. These great albums, which don’t come along very often, are captured moments in time – shared events that take on a distinctive quality for those who wish they could have been there and also for those who were to listen, feel and relive the experience of a particularly exceptional performance. The sold-out Portishead show in Berkeley was one of those rare nights.

Returning for their first appearance in the Bay Area in nearly fifteen years, Bristol’s core trio of Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley played to a really full house at the Greek Theater, which must certainly be considered one of the best venues for live music. Portishead, the reclusive musical pioneers, have released just three studio albums since 1994 but have managed to remain relevant and retain a tremendous following. With a minimal stage design other than the stage-wide rear screen behind the band, the show began with three tracks from their 2008 release, Third: “Silence,” “Hunter” and “Nylon Smile.” Other tracks from their catalog included “Mysterons,” “Sour Times” and “Wandering Star” from 1994’s Dummy as well as “Over” and “Cowboys” from their eponymous 1997 release. Also on the set list was the 2009 vinyl and mp3 download-only Amnesty International track “Chase the Tear” which was an arpeggiated and groovy gem. The highlights of the evening were “Roads” with its tasty, lazy bass lines and the haunting “Glory Box” where you could actually feel the air being sucked out of the venue as the crowd held their collective breath at the dramatic pause in the tune.

Musically, the show was what you would expect: cinematic and spatial, intricately tense and deceptively simple. The sound production was flawless and allowed the silences in the music to be just as dramatic, meaningful and “musical” as the audible parts. While turntable scratching might seem out of place in 2011, the performances were so organic and yet immensely intelligent that it gave the sense Portishead somehow knew something about music that most other bands hadn’t quite figured out yet. The crowd seemed eerily attentive to every nuance of the show, mesmerized and happy to be immersed in the rich, jazzy, soulful sounds.

The abstract visuals on the rear LED curtain were from among numerous sources including various onstage camera feeds, lo-fi imagery as well as a “live” VU meter and an oscilloscope. These images were all dutifully processed through what production called a “dirt-box” workbench, emerging as perfect complements to the music; gloriously grungy, feedback-laced textures and images filled with VHS artifacts.

In short, Portishead's musicianship, attention to detail and understated complexity of the arrangements was nothing short of stunning. While all of the musical and visual elements were remarkable on their own, the sum of the parts was even more extraordinary. There was a palatable sense that there was something significant and special happening at this performance. While I won’t hold out serious hope that the show was being recorded for a future live album release, I’m leaving a slot open next to my well-worn copies of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison just in case.

Set list:

Nylon Smile


The Rip

Sour Times

Magic Doors

Wandering Star

Machine Gun


Glory Box

Chase the Tear



We Carry On



Portishead's international tour continues. Click here for a list of upcoming dates.

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