Once while talking music with friends on a long road trip I was posed with the task of describing Portishead’s sound. Struggling to articulate the sum of their collective parts, I did a hasty mental cut-and-paste and said, “They’re sorta like…if Pink Floyd was a hip-hop band…and Billie Holiday was their singer.” It’s a clunky description, not so much for the references, but because Portishead’s greatest attribute is their ability to bend genres so seamlessly that it all morphs into their own sort of singular sonic universe. Even the prevailingly appropriate moniker of trip-hop (of the Bristol variety) really seems more of a launching point than a description.
So it was a rare opportunity this past week to witness Portishead’s audio empire live in the Bay Area for the first time in over 13 years (when in 1998, it recorded an epic version of “Sour Times” during a Warfield performance for the Roseland NYC Live album, later that year). Playing the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on Friday October 21, Portishead worked through a 16-song set as a six-piece live band, dark silhouettes set against a backdrop of vibrant visuals as band members broadcasted an eclectic mix of their catalogue (pulling most heavily from their more recent LP, Third). Singer Beth Gibbons was in fine tortured form, even as the early part of the set was dominated by surprisingly straightforward renderings. But during the second half of the performance Portishead delved deep in their element with a batch of expanded arrangements on some prime tracks that produced stunning results, most notably a massively ominous “Wandering Star” and an out-for-blood “Machine Gun.”
Tracks off of the band’s self-titled second album showcased Portishead’s mastermind Geoff Barrows working his way from a cocoon of varying instruments to the turntables were he cut up gargantuan spots on “Over” and “Cowboys.” The night’s showstopper came in the form of “Roads” (off of the band’s landmark debut Dummy) as Beth Gibbons’ vocals hit their apex for the evening.
Seeing Portishead again for the first time in a decade, I tried to improve on my original description of their sound, but I’m still not so sure how to peg it all: they sounded like Nina Simone scoring a James Bond film, and the beginning of the end of a great romance, and a DJ battle under pulsing blacklights. Of course, none of these are fully apt either. After all...it’s Portishead. For those who know, it’s description enough.
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