We bought our tickets to Portishead months ago, even though I was concerned that the venue was going to be bad. But when we got into the WAMU Theater it was a big hall boxed off with curtains. A blank palette. There were seats in the back on risers but most of the space was for standing room. This was good. Some people were sitting on the floor waiting, others standing in small groups or solo. This rainy Sunday night in Seattle the crowd was urban, sophisticated and mostly dressed to depress. I stood out among the crowd of black-wearers in my red dress, but what else is new... It was exciting to see the variety of ages and backgrounds in the crowd. These people looked modern. Smart.
It took a while (we had heard only the distant drones of the opening band Thought Forms before we got into the empty auditorium) but the lights finally dimmed. I held my breath as we waited to see one of the greatest bands of our time. They came on to whelps of approval from the room (it was a 60 dollar ticket, these were mostly die-hard fans) and started in on a newer song. It sounded like them, but Beth Gibbons’ voice was croaky. I started to worry that she’d lost her voice over time like Aretha. But the second and third songs (also newer ones) were better. And then the strains of “Mysterons” (one of the masterpieces - the older songs) rung out. My heart fluttered with excitement. And Beth’s voice burst into full bloom.
From this point on I spent much of the concert with my mouth wide open in amazement. It wasn’t the excellent, raw visuals (colorful, light-washed films I believe made by the band themselves featuring live feed of the performers). It wasn’t just that Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley and their hired players were performing some of the greatest music ever made. It was Beth Gibbons’ gorgeous voice and melodic genius.
She doesn’t get enough credit. Sure, the looped (and on the newer albums mostly played live) soundscapes by Barrow are unusually lush and orchestral. His signature programmed sound on the first records and his use of manual instruments like the turntable and the theremin are extraordinary. And Utley’s live guitars bring crucial earthy elements of mood and story to the songs. But Beth Gibbons writes those melodies that are so memorable they haunt your dreams. And those lyrics that are so real they may leave a scar behind.
More than that, watching Beth Gibbons sing is like watching a fire burn. She is obviously tortured by her own insecurity and doubt (as evidenced in the lyrics, in interviews and the tone of the songs). And although you can tell she is humbled and amazed at the adoration she gets from the crowd, you can also tell that it’s difficult for her to be up there in front of everyone.
Most of Portishead’s songs released after “Roseland” in 1998, with the exception of “Machine Gun” are largely disappointing except for Beth’s voice and delivery. They’ve lost the lushness, the warmth and magic that made the first 2 albums (and the live one) great. It’s good that the band feels they are progressing technologically by not using the same kinds of instruments or loops, but they’ve lost the thread with the new writing of the non-vocal parts. Still, this was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.
Each time one of the old songs started up my heart literally fluttered with excitement. We were in the presence of greatness. “Wandering Star” was the highest point of the show. It fit the time and place perfectly. This shy, sad girl on stage. Ironically surrounded by her band and an audience of hundreds. Singing a burning song to the cold, dark sky.