Thursday, October 13th, 2011
Portishead at The Sound Academy in Toronto
Frank YangSome have been lumping Portishead’s return to recording and touring, starting with the release of 2007′s Third, in with the spate of ’90s band reunions and reconciliations which the more cynical would assume be intended to cash in on the nostalgia of today’s 30-somethings. This is basically wrong. Yes, the band were last properly active in the late ’90s, their second self-titled album coming out in Fall 1997, but what separates Portishead from the pack are that Third was written and recorded if not released before their return to the stage and rather than rest on past laurels as the progenitors of what would become datedly known as “trip-hop”, they opted to evolve far beyond what they were known for and leave the genre behind. There was no trip-hop on Third, only dark and fascinating Portishead. The band didn’t go away, they were just taking their time, and in the interim no one was able to replicate what they did.
And while it took them a good while to get around to touring North America for the new record – three and a half years or so – they finally got around to it this Fall and brought their show to Toronto’s Sound Academy for two nights over Thanksgiving weekend, of which I was at the first evening. Portishead may not immediately seem like they’d be an incredible live band, what with being very much studio creations and not “rocking” in the conventional sense, but the PNYC live set proved they were fully capable of recreating the same sense of desolate and desperate wonder of their records on stage. There was no reason not to expect greatness. And while there was no orchestra accompanying them this time, playing in front of a riveting lightshow made up of recorded projections and live camerawork, the six-piece band was more than equipped to create every tone and texture needed to do their material justice. Be it seamlessly combining live and electronic drums, inserting a brilliant turntable break or just jazzing the tempos the right amount to keep the dirgier songs moving, they were delicate when needed but heavy as hell on demand.
And at the centre of them all, of it all, either draped over the mic or with back to the audience, was Beth Gibbons – the enigmatic voice and face of the band. Her sorrowful, emotive vocals were reflected in the pained expressions on her face as she sang, and with her refusal to do interviews you couldn’t help but wonder if she was in character up there or if she was actually laying herself bare; in either case, whatever emotions Portishead were channelling were coming directly through her. At points her vocals seemed undermixed, not an unusual occurrence at the Sound Academy, but you couldn’t help thinking it was also deliberate to a degree, to allow for even more dramatic effect when she rose above the din. And despite the limits of her stage moves – she didn’t stay at the mic, face the crowd any longer than was necessary or say a word – she was a mesmerizing figure to watch, to try and figure out. It was only at the very end of the final song, “We Carry On”, that the mask broke and Gibbons leapt into the photo pit, all grins, and shook hands with as many fans in the front row as she could. It was a stunning and surprising dropping of what was now clearly a performance, and what a performance.
Some fans might have found room to complain that the set list leaned too heavily on Third, overlooking the fact that it’s a brilliant record for the fact that it’s not their favourite, and yeah – a couple more songs off Portishead would have been welcome – but the there’s no ground to be had in arguing that the show was anything less than brilliant for it. Perfectly paced, presented and performed. Perfectly Portishead.
The Globe & Mail, The Toronto Sun, The New Zealand Herald, and Beatroute have interviews with the band. Examiner.com and NOW were on hand for Sunday night, Exclaim on Monday and it’s unclear when Torontoist was there.
Photos: Portishead @ The Sound Academy – October 9, 2011
Video: Portishead – “Chase The Tear”
Video: Portishead – “Magic Doors”
Video: Portishead – “The Rip”
Video: Portishead – “Machine Gun”
Video: Portishead – “Glory Box”
Video: Portishead – “All Mine”
Video: Portishead – “Humming”
New Horrors video!
Video: Fanfarlo – “Deconstruction”
Urban Outfitters have an interview with Anthony Gonzalez of M83 and are also streaming their new album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming ahead of its release on October 18. Black Book also has an interview. They play Lee’s Palace on November 18.
Stream: M83 / Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming