Melancholic rapture Rock
The Sunday Telegraph, November 30,1997
The Brixton Academy security staff are having a quiet night,
and in a sense so are the rest of us. It's not that the 4,000
people here aren't enjoying themselves, it's just that you wouldn't
want to crowd- surf to Portishead. It would be more plausible
if the bouncers were here to give the patrons emergency hugs,
but that's not quite right either.
Despite its dark ambience, Portishead's
music raises the spirits as often as it lowers them. Guitarist
Adrian Utley has described making the group's latest album (Portishead,
Go! Beat) as like walking through thic mud; but there's something
pleasant about wallowing in mud and misery. Portishead don't just
capture negative emotion, they capture it positively. They make
melancholia desirable, and the faces around us are rapt. Eerily
beautiful music floods through the art deco warren of floors and
Head to head, Portishead and Radiohead
are probably the two most interesting high-selling groups of the
moment; both have followed a landmark debut with good second albums,
and both have very good lead singers.
But Portishead have other strengths:
a brilliant drummer (Clive Deemer), and Geoff Barrow, who met
singer Beth Gibbons in a Bristol Job Centre. Barrow isn't athletically
amazing at the decks, but his style is inimitable. Using old equipment,
he manages to add to the music by making it imperfect.
Listening to Portishead is like being
trapped in old celluloid - something monotone and vaguely horrible,
like Quatermass and the Pit. There are echoes of James Bond themes,
kitsch big-band brass, Doctor Who synths. If the Cybermen walked
on - in crackly black-and-white - they would fit right in.
The evening starts quietly, with a slightly
muted performance of Humming. It's only when the down-tempo tattoo
of Mysterons begins that the crowd start to go mad. This is the
music people have been driving to, drinking to, having their hair
cut to for nearly four years, and they're not tired of it yet.
In response to the groundswell of applause,
Gibbons and the techno- gnomes on stage pick up the pace with
three new songs, each better than the last.
Mourning Air and Half Day Closing combine
Gibbons's soaring vocals with hard, satisfying rock guitar from
Utley, and on Over Gibbons' s voice starts to hit the Edith Piaf
/ Betty Boo sneer that makes Portishead's music so sexy.
On Sour Times, Gibbons reaches a peak,
her voice torch-song clear and vibrato over the jolie laide backing.
The strength and delicacy and particularity of her voice not only
fills the Academy but gives the impression it could sound this
remarkable and distinctive anywhere, from a Bristol pub gig to
the Wigmore Hall.
"Thank you," she says afterwards,
"I thought you'd all be London bastards, but you're not.
You're really quite nice."
And we cheer back at her deliriously,
still held in warm Portishead celluloid as we wander out into
the cold, wet Brixton night.