Bristol Colston Hall
It's beautiful, of course.
But then, what did you expect? Beth Gibbons appearing in a spandex
jumpsuit for a thrash version of 'War Pigs'? Geoff Barrow emerging
from his decks to croon his Michael Bolton tribute version of
'Sour Times'? It's been four years, and there's no sign that Portishead
are capable of anything but this beauty thing. Call it a rut,
but being stalled in this musical universe is hardly like breaking
down in some dismal retro lay-by.
The moment Beth appears
on the red-lit stage, her face in shadow, and opens her mouth
to pitch the Theremin vibrations of 'Humming', it proves again
how stupid it would be to become complacent about this noise.
Sure, get blasé about it if you have the planets dropping round
every Thursday for their celestial music evenings - otherwise,
listen. Portishead aren't complacent; this is the first of two
hometown shows, expectation doubled after last month's cancellation,
and Beth cheerfully admits to nerves. It doesn't help that Colston
Hall is moulded in grey cement more suited to marching bands from
Budapest. Yet if anything can crack through the coldness and bring
a sharp new chill, it's Beth.
It's easy to understand
why she avoids interviews - living up to her singing voice must
be a struggle, like constantly being outshone by a brilliant sibling
- yet she's so much more than a cipher for all those 'smoky',
'noir' Portishead clichés, more than some human dry-ice machine
dispensing instant Gitanes-scented atmosphere. She's a genuinely
strange frontwoman. Sure, that's still partly down to the shock
of someone opening their mouth and making that sound, crumpling
in on itself like burning paper at the end of 'Over' as the sheet-metal
bass slams against it again and again, turning into the 'Glory
Box' bow and arrow and arcing out over the audience or whispering
through the breath-on-hair closeness of 'Wandering Star'.
It's far from your standard,
just-add-trauma angst, switching instead from suicidal to homicidal,
unsure whether to turn off the lights and cry, or switch on the
infrared goggles and stalk the evil bastards until they beg. But
beyond that, Beth is just so fascinatingly wrong up there; in
the way her introspection suddenly shatters with a hair-shaking
rock strut, or an excitable stream of words. "Thank you all
for coming sorry about last time it was a scary one I love you
Bristol," she chatters, giving a thumbs-up and turning to
the band only to discover - with comic double take - they've all
From Garbo to Groucho
in a second, yet there's still a sense that behind that hair and
smoke she's the great lost personality of British music. But then,
this is a band committed to sound, unconcerned about hooking in
the audience's attention like fairground ducks, more obsessed
with the minutiae of mood. Sometimes, it gets too much, like watching
scientists endlessly refining crystals - a whole magic world of
difference for them, a slight shift in colour for the outsider.
Yet when they do set off a pyrotechnic flash, it's startling -
the Boris Karloff piano shiver at the beginning of 'Cowboys',
the leeringly jaunty swirl of carnival music at the end of 'Half
Day Closing', or the remodelled 'Sour Times', a parched bossa
nova collapsing into a terrifying, lonely panic. Don't forget
this is what they can do. Keep your nerves raw for them.