You Had to Be There
Despite so-so album, Portishead is electric on stage
Newsday, December 8,1997, pp B02
PORTISHEAD. British trip-hoppers take down-tempo melancholia
into the theaters. At the Hammerstein Ballroom, 311 W. 34 Street,
Manhattan. Seen Friday.
COMMERCIALLY, Portishead has been struggling
with its second, self-titled album, released this summer three
years after its acclaimed, gold-selling debut "Dummy."
Some critics have assailed the group for not varying its instantly
recognizable sound - moody spy-fi soundtrack music invested with
the groove of hip-hop, the sultry delivery of the classic torch
singer, and a healthy enthusiasm for modern technology.
It's true that many numbers from Portishead's
two albums are interchangeable; also that so few song titles bear
resemblance to lyrical hooks that even the group's fans have difficulties
identifying particular numbers. But none of that mattered at a
sold-out Hammerstein Ballroom on Friday night, where Portishead
proved that as a live act, it towers above the myriad "trip-hop"
acts it has helped to inspire.
Much of this was due to meticulous presentation,
as when the group's touring DJ, Andy Smith, segued from a warmup
set into a specific overture, scratching furious hip-hop beats
to a film that portrayed the drive into the southwestern English
town of Portishead, after which the band is named.
As the street sign "Welcome to
Portishead" came up, five male musicians shuffled quietly
on stage. Group founder Geoff Barrow chain-smoked nervously behind
his own set of turntables; guitarist Adrian Utley thrived on sparse
spaghetti western refrains; studio engineer and official band
member Dave McDonald contributed from the sound board. Clive Deemer
provided a constantly crisp backbeat that successfully straddled
jazz and hip-hop. Hired hands rounded out the lineup on bass and
To Portishead's fanatical audience,
these men were but a supporting cast to an unlikely heroine: vocalist
Beth Gibbons, who is in her mid-30s, refuses to give interviews,
dresses casually and smokes furiously. She did not speak on stage
until the set's conclusion; the few occasions she was spotlighted,
it was usually from behind, leaving her as a silhouette. But her
voice - like that of a haunted angel - and lyrics of almost total
despair resonate deeply with a public seeking credible, human
Gibbons' words hint at struggles universal
("This loneliness just won't leave me alone" being a
typically mordant example), but it is her range and delivery that
separates her from other angst-ridden femme fatales. When she
closed the set by changing the "nobody loves me" refrain
of the group's most popular song "Sour Times," from
a sad whisper to a violent scream, it felt like nothing so much
as an exorcism.
Nine of the first 11 songs Portishead
performed were from its new album, of which "Over" and
"Elysium" most effectively highlighted the group's core
sound - Barrow scratching hip-hop grooves over, under and around
Gibbons' emotional pleas, a unique combination of textures matched
nowhere else in pop music.
Throughout it all, a variety of hypnotic backdrops helped to
take the music out of its club roots and give it instead a merited
theatrical context. Succumbing to expectations, Portishead concluded
proceedings with four well-known, perfectly executed songs from
"Dummy," leaving the audience well satiated, if not
positively delirious. As a live act, Portishead is currently without
parallel in its field.
Tony Fletcher is a freelance writer