Against the Occupy backdrop, you’d almost think the vastly politicized Massive Attack were on hand to provide the most apt trip-hop soundtrack for the current zeitgeist. Memories of their American trek last year are still fresh, reanimated with the band’s seething audio-visual assault on capitalism and corporate greed. Similarly, their social-media presence is prevalent and timely, and features sharp critique and commentary.
By contrast, Portishead seem frail in stature, and could be easily perceived as lacking in the arsenal and verve to provide a reasonable political—or even sonic —presence to accompany social unrest. This perception is compounded by singer/”front” person Beth Gibbons, whose poor posture and wallflower stance is far from anyone fronting or standing up to be counted.
Portishead’s album release and tour schedule also conveys a distinct lack of urgency: three albums in 15 years; 12 years between the last two albums; 14 years between visits to Vancouver; and even now in 2011 they are finally getting around to tour in support of their 2008 album, Third.
Yet live these purveyors of narcoleptic beats outpaced the somnolence and cut through the shadow-play to touch the couple thousand in attendance by evoking universal themes like fear, loneliness, love, loss, and perseverance.
Oxymoronically, the band’s introspection and introversion was hypnotically captivating once bathed in the limelight. The opening triptych mirrored Third’s first three songs— “Silence,” “Hunter,” and “Nylon Smile”—and despite trance-inducing drones and drums, they collectively jarred when necessary to bring the audience’s focus transcendentally back to the stage.
This sonic transgression was just one of the many strategies deployed through the night. The rapid-fire “Machine Gun” took a different approach by unrelentingly building up tension and momentum to a boiling point, then stopping abruptly without denouement or resolution. Alternatively, 2009’s Amnesty International charity single “Chasing the Tear” channeled a Kraftwerk vibe, and in homage to the electro-pioneers, it took the audience on a tour with its driving sequencers and bassline. The result was sublime and rapturous.
Some of the songs from their smash hit Dummy, by nature of their familiarity, offered repose. “Sour Times,” “Mysterons,” and “Glory Box,” in particular, arrived at opportune moments in the set to re-engage the audience before the time came to lull and jar once more. Ironically, complacency was the enemy this evening, and it was fervently combated.
Other older songs, however, served to haunt and disturb. The stripped-down “Wandering Star,” performed by the core band members Gibbons, guitarist Adrian Utley, and DJ/producer Geoff Barrow, was piercing and brooding in its simmering restraint. Emotionally, this track was the most profound, evidenced by the communal silence and astonishment that met its final note.
Likewise, “Over,” one of the few played off of 1997’s Portishead, was a whispering highlight, made resounding more by its between-notes silence than by Utley’s riff.
Visually, as well, the band played with absences by highlighting the light with surrounding darkness. Projections were often of a silhouetted band member or a spiral-graphic white light. “Cowboys” was duly augmented by a Dali-esque black-and-white spiraling rectangle. Color was dispensed with great thrift, but had a monumental and daunting effect when used, the glowing orange sun that rose during the assault of “Machine Gun” being one fine example.
By the closer, “Threads,” and the encore of “Roads,” along with the stunningly inspiring “We Carry On,” the crowd was amply transfixed, motivated and mobilized, proof that occupying yourself on your own terms can be as poignant an act as occupying something else, or at least an appropriate starting point before endeavoring further.
3. Nylon Smile
5. The Rip
6. Sour Times
7. Magic Doors
8. Wandering Star
9. Machine Gun
11. Glory Box
12. Chase the Tear
2. We Carry On
—Words and photos by Chris “Gutter” Rose