Incredibly, 2014 saw Portishead mark the 20th anniversary of their landmark debut ‘Dummy’, an album that popularized trip hop, was awarded the prestigious Barclaycard Mercury Prize and is often named as one of the best albums of the 1990s. To celebrate, the band reissued the album on vinyl and played several tour dates, claiming these live shows would influence the direction of their long-awaited fourth album.
Some years produce great wines (apparently. Personally I like the £4.79 claret from the co-op). I personally think that, musically, 1995 was a pretty extraordinary vintage, although I am prepared to accept that, as I was 16 at the time, I may be slightly biased.
Tonight, hearing Portishead play Roads, I am transported back two decades, and every beautifully histrionic, teenage rollercoaster of hormones and drugs surges through me all over again.
I think even then Portishead’s music felt timeless. Beth Gibbons’ strangely muted vocals felt like they came from another time that never quite existed. Geoff Barrow’s complex, harsh beats felt industrial and at the same time hand-made, like jazz played by robots.
The term “trip-hop” meant both more and less then. Definitely less now. But Portishead brought to that moody, overcast, smoke-wreathed scene something richer; they brought sweeping, swooning strings, lovelorn lyrics, heartfelt hooks. They brought class.
1997’s eponymous follow-up presented a fitting continuation of the same ideas. Bond-themes from Bond-films-that-never-were spooned with the dark offspring of Dummy’s brooding malice and naked emotion.
And Third in 2008 went somewhere both new and familiar, as the beats became simpler, but always challenging; always new.
So standing here tonight, my expectations are a teensy bit high.
The end of every song is very abrupt, which makes it feel like a rush through the set, even though they’re actually revelling in it, as we shall see…
Machine Gun sounds incredible at this volume, but eerily close to the recorded version. I was ready to be merely happy with it, but then a wonderful video of Cameron (*spits*) as Big Brother leered over the crowd, and his glowing laser-eyes searched us out like the Eye of Sauron. The sunrise of the CND symbol said more after that image than any number of words could.
Over sounds better than it ever has. Every instrument is live, every noise is created bespoke, just for us. This is exactly what live performance should be, and if I have to wait a decade between every performance to get it then so be it. Outstanding!
But for all their chilled-out, stoned exterior, there’s something angry right at the core of Portishead. Something that can make you dance when you thought you’d just relax and nod your head. And we do. We dance, despite our middle-class, Latitudinal, head-bobby predispositions.
Glory Box is just wonderful. And, again, just a little bit different. Just enough.
And then: “Last song – no offense!” says Gibbons cheerily as she trots off, mere moments before Thom Yorke comes onstage to duet as an encore. That’s right; Thom Yorke came onstage to duet for Just. One. Song.
And, of course, they played Roads. I cried. Just a bit, and I’m not proud, but I’m also not ashamed. What on earth did you expect?
And then something truly magical happens. Beth Gibbons scoots down the steps to the stage and crowd-surfs, before coming back to the barrier in order to apparently hug everyone in the front row individually. I can’t tell you how warmly everyone felt watching that. There were a LOT of smiles and happiness from everyone in that field.
I’m really impressed by how much here was played live, on real instruments, in front of us. It’s so good to hear these songs played differently, and Portishead deliver with a really considered set, well-rehearsed, well-performed, straddling their career. This was all far more than we could have asked for.