Friday: Portishead Works Its Haunting Magic at the Greek Theatre

Matt Smith
Portishead at the Greek Theatre on Friday

Thought Forms
Oct. 21, 2011
The Greek Theatre

Better than: Listening to the drum circle at Occupy Oakland.

Friday night at the Greek Theatre, Portishead delivered the set that eager concertgoers were likely yearning for when they purchased tickets for the sold-out gig over two months ago. The tension, balance, and subtle despair on the band's recordings were communicated. Despite the production limitations of live, outdoor amphitheatre sound, Portishead's signature chilling musical texture was intact. Its performance certainly conveyed the mystery and alienation that has characterized the band's public persona, though the giddy appreciation and fawning from the captivated audience was an odd contrast to the group's outward hopelessness.

Matt Smith

A plethora of laptops, pedal boards, keyboards, and electronic drums on stage can indicate the level of a group's professionalism before it has even begun; lack of musical skill or songwriting ability is often obscured by elaborate gear and effects. Thankfully, Portishead confidently demonstrated how to utilize modern musical equipment. Two percussionists deftly navigated hybrid kits comprised of electronic and traditional drums, and Geoff Barrow made tasteful use of his keyboards and turntables.

Matt Smith

The percussionists were a crucial aspect of the live sound. The circular and tough grooves on "The Rip," "Sour Times," and "Cowboys" manipulated listeners into a docile, hypnotic state that allowed Beth Gibbons to infiltrate our souls, steal our memories of loss, and then use them to sing her next line with excruciating empathy. On "Magic Doors," the percussionists' grooves were accompanied by a feral, low-end dirge from Barrow's synthesizer, and Gibbons seemed to receive all concertgoers' past memories of alienation at once, forcing her to sit down for the next song.

The dynamic, malleable nature of Beth Gibbons' vocals that is so apparent on Portishead's studio albums remained completely intact in the live setting. Spatial, minimal instrumentation enhanced her emotive vocal performances as much as the haunting, sonic texture of her band at their most captivating moments. During her seated performance of "Wandering Star," accompanied only by sparse guitar, the audience was completely engrossed. Interestingly, the track was followed by "Machine Gun," one of the more esoteric tracks from the band's most recent album that repeats an industrial drum machine cadence for five minutes with no segues. Since Gibbons supple voice was equally compelling despite the musical differences of these tracks, the audience remained completely enraptured.

The closer, "Threads," was a gradual, slow burning crescendo of guitar noise and percussive build-ups that blossomed into oblivion and set the scene for the moody and balanced encore, "Roads." The irony of Portishead's performance was of course that Gibbons' lyrics focus so heavily on unrequited love and isolation, yet she and the sold-out crowd acutely related to one another and found solace in their empathy.

Matt Smith

Critic's Notebook

Most apt projector image: A video-montage of earthquake footage.

Overheard: "It was Portishead and Belle & Sebastian that made me want to die in the '90s."

The Rip
Sour Times
Magic Doors
Wandering Star
Machine Gun
Glory Box
Chase the Tear
We Carry On

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Location Info


UC Berkeley, Greek Theatre

Gayley & University, Berkeley, CA

Category: Music

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