It’s no secret that Portishead treads in mystery. Any band that disappears for more than a decade can do anything it damn pleases with its shadowy legacy. So a Portishead tour, three years after the release of its masterpiece Third, would be surprising for any other band that follows the record-tour-write new songs business model. But not so for Beth Gibbons and friends, who played a 90 minute set heavy on newer material in front of an enthusiastic Seattle crowd.
To levy the good with the bad, the choice of venue was simply awful. Seeing Portishead is a once in a lifetime chance and I would have rather enjoyed the performance in a comfortable place such as the Moore or the Paramount. Instead, we got the WaMu Theater, more an aimless convention center where I could picture vendors discussing sailboat motors rather than a place to rock out. Whatever. I got to see fucking Portishead.
As I waited for the band to take the stage, I watched the crowd, trying to pinpoint exactly what a Portishead fan looks like. But as the pastiche of backwards ball caps, dreadlocks, skinny Goth chicks, gangstas and street punks roamed by with $10 beers, I soon began to realize the near ubiquity of the band, a group just as challenging and as beloved as Radiohead. There is hope for our times.
The lights went down and a giant P, that well-loved symbol of Portishead, appeared on the screen at the rear of the stage. The band took its place, Gibbons the wounded chanteuse dead center, Adrian Utley – mountainous with his guitar – to her right with Geoff Barrow working in the rear along with a few other backing musicians. The Portuguese monologue that leads off Third blared over the PA and the crowd cheered in recognition as the band began the show with “Silence.” Gibbons’ voice sounded more tearful and ragged than on record as she lithely swayed behind the mike.
Portishead continued their set as if they would play Third straight through, launching into a version of the silky and sad “Hunter” and the more discordant “Nylon Smile.” But the band broke the streak, reaching back nearly 20 years to first album Dummy with “Mysterons.” In its earlier incarnation, Portishead was a trip-hop pioneer, a sound mostly abandoned in the tumult of Third. However, when presented alongside the new tracks, “Mysterons” not only felt like a progenitor of the band’s sound, but nestled nicely with these later additions to the oeuvre.
Two highlights followed in “The Rip” and “Sour Times,” amid the thundering applause of the appreciative audience, capping it with an emotional performance of “Magic Doors.” Gibbons is by no means the most dynamic frontwoman – she typically turned to Barrow and swayed during instrumental breaks – but even in her casual black shirt and jeans there is something undeniably hypnotic about her. Most of the band (sans Utley and Barrow) left the stage for a stripped down, gentle version of “Wandering Star” before returning for the full-out assault of “Machine Gun.”
Despite having three albums of material to draw from, Portishead largely ignored its second, self-titled album over the course of the set. “Over” did make an appearance but it was quickly followed by Dummy closer “Glory Box” with its Isaac Hayes sample and single “Chase the Tear.” The second album came up one more time with “Cowboys” before Portishead closed down the first set with an extended version of “Threads.”
Gibbons said very little between songs, thanking us a few times and mentioning how “quiet” we were. The band returned for a two song encore, leading off with the heartbreaking “Roads” before moving to a fiery “We Carry On.” As the band stretched its dissonant instrumental break, Gibbons not only danced along but then ran into the crowd, receiving hearty kisses, hugs and handshakes from excited fans. It was triumphant return for a band that needs to get out of the hazy peripheries and into the limelight more often.
Photos: Katrin Peeters