A century of seismic shifts has left visible scars on the Greek Theatre’s concrete structure, and some big-ass vertical cracks were visible to anyone streaming into the sold-out venue last Friday. It was the day after the Hayward fault once again reminded us of its existence, a fact not lost on me as I positioned myself closer to the crowd’s edge than usual, mentally plotting escape scenarios. I was prepared for more, but it would’ve taken the real Big One to get me — and the surrounding throngs crushed in around me — to flee.
It’s been thirteen years since Portishead has toured North America, and even longer since the band visited the West Coast. Berkeley is one of only six US tour stops, and the place was jam-packed with breathless fans, none of whom could care less about seismic activity.
You could call Portishead’s output over the years stingy: It has released just three full-lengths (Dummy, Portishead, and Third) and one live album since 1994, with a ten-year hiatus between the second and third albums. Or you could call it precise, the result of intense, hard-working musicians who labor over every word, every sound, every feel that they produce, and who refuse to be pigeonholed or predictable. The Bristol-based band still consists of vocalist Beth Gibbons, guitarist Adrian Utley and I’ll-play-whatever-awesome-thing-I-feel-like producer/instrumentalist Geoff Barrow; for this tour they’ve added a keyboardist, guitarist, and drummer.
Though Portishead has no problem making people wait, the band didn’t mess with Berkeley. Less than thirty minutes after opener Thought Forms slunk off stage (following a charming shoegaze-y set that felt like a messy Sonic Youth ode), we got what we’d been waiting for. The audience cheered as the dudes strode onto the stage, all waves and big grins, but saved the real roars for Gibbons, the sweet chanteuse who, at 46, looks like a much hotter, cooler J.K Rowling.
They charged straight into the music, beginning with the first three tracks from Third: the driving “Silence,” meandering, windchime-y “Hunter,” and the pulsating “Nylon Smiles.” Videos were projected on the huge screen behind them, vacillating between abstract images and real-time footage from numerous tiny cameras hidden around the stage. It was a reintroduction to a band long absent, a showcase of sonic and stylistic range. And then: the croaky-frog vinyl scratches of “Mysterons,” the first track off Dummy, and the night really began.
This interplay between newer and classic tracks continued, as they wound back and forth between Third and Dummy seamlessly. Here’s the thing with Portishead: The band sounds like no one else. And no one else sounds like Portishead. Even Third, with its industrial energies and utter lack of the groove-based sounds that defined the group’s early work, sounds like, well, Portishead. Much of that is due to Gibbons’ voice, which floats and trembles and moans over whatever aural landscape that Barrow and company lay out, as well as the lyrics, which rarely stray from the bleak themes of loss, regret, and self-doubt. And though Portishead’s first two albums may evoke nostalgia in some of us, the songs don’t sound dated, ever.
Midway through the show the supporting band members exited, leaving the core trio on stage. The videos ceased, and Gibbons and Barrow pulled up chairs to sit face-to-face. Barrow’s bass pulsed and Gibbons’ macabre plea rose above it: Please could you stay awhile/to share my grief. Slow and gentle, it was a gorgeous rendition of Dummy’s “Wandering Star.” Stripped of the dense layers of the original, it was just Barrow’s looping bass notes and Utley’s occasional guitar shimmering under delightfully morose lyrics (The blackness of darkness forever). Gibbons sat hunched over her hand-held mic, and allowed her voice to soar like some haunted-house theremin with a spooky, scale-climbing vibrato.
It was an intimate, vulnerable moment — but quickly they returned to their spots and ripped into “Machine Gun,” a beautifully punishing song that teeters just on the edge of unlistenable. Barrow’s crude, mechanical beat felt like getting punched in the chest by a robot, and if the aggro drums didn’t shock us out of our trance, then the accompanying spectacle did: Grainy security camera footage of an office during an earthquake played on a loop, intercut with images of a bridge rippling and swaying in a quake. Gibbon’s voice lilted over it all; the effect was eerie and awesome, and a sense of freaked-outness rippled through the crowd like yet another tremor.
As they wound through the remaining songs, Gibbons was fascinating to watch: She managed to be vulnerable and frail yet bold and seductive. Her few attempts at audience banter were sweet but awkward — but by the show’s end, after singing her last line, she bounded around stage drinking a celebratory beer and then hopped down into the crowd to shake hands and high-five her adoring fans. She was psyched. And so were we.