TORONTO -- Finding the words to describe Portishead, a band that defies
all labels and genres, is a daunting task.
On record, the band is incredibly difficult to pin down. Trip-hop, jazz
and lounge music all play big parts in their unique sound. At times, it's
almost hard to imagine a full band playing such tunes, rather it sounds more
like the product of one brilliantly creative mind.
Live, Portishead are masters of atmosphere, creating an ethereal, eerie
feeling, one of grandeur that is, at the same time, superbly understated. Such
was the case during the short, yet fulfilling, set Sunday night at The Warehouse.
The crowd was oddly subdued and somewhat respectful of the band and their music.
There seemed to be some ingrained, unwritten law that no moshing would be
tolerated -- Portishead are too much of a luxury to allow for that. Instead, the
audience simply let the music wash over them, with brief applause after each
Geoff Barrow may be the brains behind Portishead, but the unbelievably
wiry Beth Gibbons, with her soaring vocals, is certainly the heart. For the
duration of the show, the audience seemed literally spellbound by Gibbons as she
clasped the mic, trademark grimace in place, her piercing, aching wail sweeping
the crowd like a lone foghorn drifting out over an empty black ocean
-- assertive, steady and unwavering until the end.
What great music they made together. Strangely enough, songs from the band's
eponymous second album seemed to get the biggest reactions, especially
(RealAudio excerpt) with its sad, impassionate plea.
Still, in the end, it was the older stuff that really stood out -- "Mysterons"
and "Sour Times" being definite show highlights. Each had an energy and an
impact unparalleled by any songs from their sophomore effort. However, to hack
the show up and dissect it song by song would be to do the band and its work a
Portishead live are not about songs. They're about seeing things as a whole.
With absolutely no stage banter, no theatrics aside from simple shapes and
animation projected onto the curtain behind them and only the briefest of pauses
between songs, it was easier for Portishead to do something that not many bands
are capable of -- they made you forget you were standing in a full-to-capacity
nightclub, surrounded by hot, sweaty people, crushing empty paper cups beneath
Instead, for a scant 60 minutes or so, they transported the audience to another
world -- their world. Where music is stark, apathetic swing beats mingle
effortlessly with ice-queen vocals and smoke from expensive cigarettes hangs
lazily in the air.
Forget volume, revving guitars and rock-star posturing. Portishead were out
there to make you feel something -- to create an atmosphere, a feeling. And that
they did, touching you sadly somewhere inside, a place where only the smallest
minority of bands manage to go.
To get the full effect you almost had to forget about the band on the stage. You
had to listen, really listen, to the ambient noise they were making and allow
yourself to be swept away. If you did happen to turn your eyes toward the stage,
though, you would have seen five normal, refreshingly unpretentious people.
After Portishead left the stage and the crowd was thrust into the smell of
and the cold night air, reality crashed back.
In retrospect, it's hard to sum up this show, other than to say that it was
something magical and wondrous.
Remember The Shining? Remember the vast golden ballroom, filled with the
revelers of parties past? That's Portishead -- touching, simple, frightening,
elegant and breathtakingly beautiful. [Thurs., Dec. 11,
1997, 9 a.m. PST]