TORONTO -- Portishead: "Trip-hop?" I think not.
Despite being labeled as such, it became apparent, as the first part of their show Sunday at The Warehouse progressed and the band essayed a good sampling of new songs such as "Cowboys"
(RealAudio excerpt), that Portishead, with their funereal, nod-out rhythms and the last-ditch black romanticism of their lyrics, are not really trip-hop artists at all.
Rather, they are the newest mutation of the existentially challenged goth-genre to emanate from the old U.K., worthy successors to the post-punk art-gloom tradition that bands such as Joy Division and the Cure established back in the early 1980s. Portishead's particularly inspired bit of innovation within this tradition is to add the sonic elements of another doomy music -- dub reggae -- to the mix.
Call the result "gothdub," if you will, a far more accurate summation of their sound.
Take a number such as "Over," with its solitary opening-guitar that is straight out of the Cure's prime era circa The Top. This was one that had the small but noticeable goth-attired contingent in the crowd moaning with delight as the loping, luded tempo kicked in and singer Beth Gibbons articulated her tale of woe, her partner Geoff Barrow attempting to scratch his way back out of the grave on his DJ-styled turntables.
If, with their landmark debut album Dummy a couple of years back, Portishead once seemed like the purveyors of a newfangled kind of music that wore well with the sensibilities of well-heeled yuppies sipping wine while dining at the local pasta bar, such a notion has slipped into the distant recesses of the past with the release of this year's eponymous follow-up, a record whose exceptional and unrelenting darkness is more likely to send the aforementioned scenesters running for bottles of Alka-Seltzer.
Though Dummy was hardly a soundtrack to the lives of shiny happy humans, it had a mellow enough edge at times to allow the superficially depressed a chance to strike the proper poses in response to it. But Portishead, from the doomy dub-strains of the opening track
"Cowboys" onwards, ups the ante considerably, with Gibbons now
sounding less like a bluesy chanteuse and more like a borderline psycho who's
ready to exact her revenge upon a brutal and uncaring world.
This was the Gibbons who led off Portishead's Toronto concert with the same
track -- who later ranged over her numerous tales of existential woe in a voice
that literally went from a whisper to a scream.
Between tunes, however, Gibbons, supposedly notorious for her stage
fright and her aloof persona, smiled often and even bummed cigarettes off
various members of the audience, an attitude which, when combined with the
image of the head-shaking shamaness who crooned Portishead's songs, gave
the evening a delectable air of schizophrenia.
Meanwhile, the band's white-curtain backdrop was continually lit with arcane
video-projections and with blood-red and deep-purple lighting, all symbolizing
the dark, wrist-slitting emotions within. The contrast between the heat of
Gibbons' emotive blues-crooner-Janis-Joplin-meets-new-waver-Siouxsie-Sioux
vocals and the occasional fireflash from ace guitarist Adrian Utley, set against
the ice-cold death cadences conjured by the rhythm section, emerged in the live
arena as the Portishead sound.
That said, if the aforementioned formula didn't charm you, you might
have stayed home.
With the exception of a couple of freak-out sections of white-noise jamming
during "Elysium" and a radically rearranged "Sour Times," that was the show (but
at least, at a little more than an hour, it didn't last too long).
Those who did dig Portishead's unique brand of gothdub, however -- and they were
many -- went home suitably impressed at the singular, slightly demented
genius of this band.
Long may they mope. [Thurs., Dec. 11, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]