Note-Perfect, But...

The Rage
Vancouver, B.C.
Saturday, December 13, 1997

Review by Darren Gawle

"Jeez, is this music ever tragic."

This is probably the most salient comment from the crowd I've heard tonight, at a show which ends up posing more questions than it answers. Three-and-a-half years on from their debut album Dummy, Portishead finally offers us the chance to experience firsthand the magic of their brand of trip-hop musique noir and find out what the fuss is all about.

The band having done away with the formality of an opening act, as such, we who've arrived early enough are treated to the Beatles' Anthology 3 (?!?) over the pre-show PA. Portishead's resident DJ Andy Smith arrives in due course, though, to lay down the vibe for the evening with a selection of old-school funk and R&B that would have even Quentin Tarantino thinking 'man, where the hell did he find that?'

Soon the other members of Portishead arrive onstage. The sound is surprisingly excellent, with every nuance of the set given the attention it deserves. "All Mine" comes across like the perfect mini-soundtrack it is, with J*m*s B*nd defusing the bomb, killing the bad guy and impregnating half of Q Division's steno pool in less than five minutes. "Half Day Closing" is the best evidence yet that Beth Gibbons might be a closet Black Sabbath fan (and if the Cardigans' Nina Persson isn't jealous, she should be). Closing number "Strangers" is a wonder, with the vocals or sampling not at all obscured by the phattest live bass sound since Cypress Hill. Hats off to the soundman.

That Portishead might or might not re-create the soundworld that made Dummy and 1997's eponymous follow-up such treasures shouldn't be an issue. Geoff Barrow is a man on top of his game to the extent that note-perfect renditions of the Portishead we know and shag along to are de rigeur. No surprise there, but -- and herein lies the issue -- there's enough latent talent in the band to let them wow any audience without having to make the effort of making a good show into a great show.

Were they holding back? I don't know, but one of those classic 'is it real or is it Memorex?' moments arrives during the off-kilter guitar breakdown in "Cowboys," when guitarist Adrian Utley falls off the beat and then stops playing completely while the guitar track keeps on going without him.

On the other hand, when Portishead decide to fool around a bit with the arrangement of their Really Big Hit ("Sour Times"), we're treated to a wall of sound devoid of the hammered dulcimer and tremolo-driven guitar which gave the original its irresistible hookline. It's only halfway through that I finally realize what song they are playing, so different is this rendition. By the end, Beth Gibbons is howling into the mike and all speculation on what Hole would sound like at 25 rpm is put to rest.

So aside from a couple of sticking points, Portishead put on a good show. The biggest question we're left with, then, given the quality Portishead seems capable of, is how much didn't we get?

First published in Drop-D Magazine on February 8, 1998

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