Sunday, October 16, 2011

Portishead @ Sound Academy, Toronto (October 10, 2011)

Beth Gibbons of Portishead @ Sound Academy: photo by Michael Ligon

There are bands I wish to see live who I have accepted will probably never reunite (The Smiths, New Order) and then there are the bands that I think I will never get to see live but then miraculously the band comes out of hiatus or retirement and goes on tour. Of the latter category, I've seen The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, and most recently, as well as more dear to my heart, Portishead. Along with fellow Bristolians Massive Attack, Portishead ignited the 'trip-hop' genre in 1990's propelling what was once an underground musical style towards the mainstream. Prior to their most recent full-length "Third" in 2008, they'd only released two albums, their seminal full-length debut "Dummy" in 1994 and their sinister self-titled follow-up in 1997. And for whatever reasons I'd not been motivated not check out the band live during the few times the band toured to promote their first two album, it was the band's 1998 live album / DVD "Pnyc Live" (a recording of the band's one-off show at NYC's Roseland Ballroom at which the band performed with an orchestra)which cemented my need to see this band live. At the time I could have not forseen the band going on hiatus from touring or recording a follow-up full-length until a decade later. When the band finally released their third album, entitled "Third", in 2008 I was ecstatic and was even more ecstatic that the band started to play live again, my hopes that the band would come back to Toronto. The band's first show in North America in 2008 was at the Coachella music festival and I remember being glued to my computer screen as I watched the live webcast of Portishead's phenomenal set. I'd never have guessed that it would have been more than three years later that Portishead would embark on a proper North American tour. Toronto made the cut fortunately, and even more fortunately the band booked two shows here for October 9 and 10. Too bad it had to be at the ghastly Sound Academy. But beggars can't be choosers, and as the dates grew closer, so did my excitement for the show. I was even more excited that within days of the show, I found out I got approved for a photo pass.

I was going to the second show of the two, which also was the same day as Thanksgiving here in Canada. After spending the day with family, I made my way down to the venue. It was just as well that I got there when I did because my arrival was only minutes before Portishead were to start. By the time I got my photo pass, then squeezed my way through the crowd to the front, then was let into the photo pit by Security, the stage lights dimmed and Portishead came on to the stage as I was still fumbling with my bag trying to get my camera and lenses out. Sweating profusely at this point, partly due to my excitement for the band and partly due to some nervous energy realizing I was almost late, I finally settled in for the three songs I'd be up there. When I wasn't snapping away, I stopped for a moment to realize I was mere feet away from the one and only Beth Gibbons!

Portishead's holy trinity of Geoff Barrows (drums, turntables), Beth Gibbons (vocals), and Adrian Utley (guitar) were joined onstage and for this tour by Jim Barr (bass), Clive Deamer(drums), and John Baggott (keyboards). The set kicked off with the rhythmically propulsive, pre-millenial tension of 'Silence', then one-eighty'd into the solemn quietness of 'Hunter' before working up the audience with the cinematic crowd-favourite 'Mysterons'. I felt fortunate to experience the band front-row centre for those three songs, to feel the immediacy of the band's different sensibilities. My three songs in the photo pit were over and I made my way back into the crowd when the band sunk into the desolate-sounding 'The Rip'(my personal favourite off "Third"), Beth Gibbons' voice trembling with every note. My view of the stage from stage left may have been less satisfying but with the remainder of the set just getting better and better, the visual element almost didn't matter.

The remainder of the main set had it's share of highlights. 'Wandering Star' was stripped down to a bare bones version with Beth and Geoff seated in the middle of the stage, Beth on vocals and Geoff on bass guitar. Audience sing-alongs could be heard on favourites like on 'Sour Times' and 'Glory Box'. It was on the latter that I realized how deeply connected I was to Beth's presence as even with such gender-specific lyrics like "Just give me a reason to love you, Give me a reason to be a woman, I just wanna be a woman", I felt like I was experiencing the female point-of-view without it being awkward. The descriptively titled 'Machine Gun' sliced it's propulsive rhythms through the air, Barrow's metallic drum sounds synched with the video projections behind them. The band's self-titled second album got the least representation during the show but thankfully included a few stunners, 'Over' featuring Barrow's exemplary turntablist skills and the sinister 'Cowboys'. I didn't realize it until they played it, but the band's Amnesty International charity single 'Chase The Tear' a song gussied up in electro-rhythms but grounded with simple drums and guitar, reminded me of Radiohead. By far the most eye-opening (or maybe that should be ear-opening) point of the night was the set-closer, the metal-ish 'Threads' on which three-quarters of the way through Gibbons' normally subdued vocals went through a transformation as the thrust and volume of her vocals achieved a level I was not entirely acquainted with. And it was exhilirating.

The encore, while only two songs, was near perfect with the Rhodes-accompanied 'Roads' which enthralled the crowd from its very first keyboard note and then with the urgent, industrial-sounding 'We Carry On' during which Gibbons, normally the introverted type, lept down to the floor to seemingly shake the hands and greet the entire front row of the crowd. Cameras and camera phones lept in to action before Gibbons jumped back onto the stage where she stood towards the right side of the stage sipping her beer as her band mates steamrolled to a conclusion.A concert on Thanksgiving could not get any better than this.

Photos: Portishead @ Sound Academy, Toronto (October 10, 2011)
MySpace: Portishead

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