Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Road Show: Portishead on Tour

[Ed. N.: This post originally ran on July 13, 2011, and is re-published to coincide with the band's current fall 2011 tour. This post also includes new tour dates, appended below.]

Sometimes, nothing hurls you gob-smack into the middle of your youth like hearing from an old favourite band. In the spring of 2008, the Blogger gleefully heard that the long-dormant, presumed-defunct mid-90s British trip-hop combo Portishead were releasing their first album of new material in over a decade. Suddenly, the writer shed all layers and armour of his presumed adulthood and opened the closet door (pun intended) to an awkward adolescence defined by sexual anguish, bad complexion and an unfortunate amount of flannel.

Portishead’s landmark disc, 1994’s Dummy, swept onto our shores with the emo movement, well before emo was even a catchphrase. Its numbing, sonic landscapes provided a lushly enveloping cocoon as turbulent as our feelings. Lead singer Beth Gibbons’s faraway vocals may have sounded disconnected at times but would descend into whispered anguish so potent it hardly dared to unleash its full force for fear that it might smash your stereo to smithereens. The chilling, spooky lead track “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me)” brilliantly married a seemingly runaway snippet of old Hitchcock score with a fractured, hurried beat that somehow made for a brilliantly gruesome aural death match. The song laid siege to my Discman (remember those?) for several months in the spring of 1995, winning the prestigious Mercury Music Prize along the way.

“Sour Times” was accompanied by a haunting video with a now-cult-iconic image of Gibbons being interrogated in the bowels of MI-5’s office. Its juxtaposition of musical elements and the accompanying clip almost dared the listener to tell us just how awful we felt about ourselves at the time. How we felt at the time was a closely guarded secret, as personal and potent to us as the whereabouts of certain political renegades are to heads of state. Such experimental fare had maximal impact on MTV and radio at the time, but would have no room for the crass “reality” swindle and shallow, cookie-cutter contemporary radio that currently pollutes popular art and the public consciousness.

A decade passed after Portishead released their acclaimed second disc in 1997, and promptly vanished. In particular, they developed on their self-titled second disc the drama and orchestral sweep which would later inform Third. In particular, the magnificent, gut-wrenching “All Mine” that is nothing less than a shriek of passion from the depths of romantic misery and possession.

Take a listen and maybe you’ll see understand how it wouldn’t be out of place in a modern updating of Wuthering Heights.

They left behind a musical legacy evident in works by trip-hop artists like Massive Attack, who continue its evolution of sound long after the public was distracted by more disposable fare. Proof of Dummy’s lasting popular impact was immediate when, within nanoseconds of posting the news of the tour's announcement on Facebook, three of the writer’s friends wrote to proclaim their love for this remarkable band. Such swift declarations of love from a decidedly uncommercial, almost obscure British band speaks volumes on Dummy’s remarkable, lasting visceral power. Gibbons and company had cut through to the emotional core of its audience when first released and unwittingly held onto it. If the album were not as effective, then it would not have brought about such spontaneous adoration.

Third continued Portishead’s musical legacy. The sinister undertones gave chill out hints of the Gothic and Romantic overtones that influenced the band’s first two albums. Gibbons’s delivery contrasted her vulnerable voice within the cloak of an orchestra sonic boom. It’s evident that the band influenced the likes of Goldfrapp, whose classic 2000 debut disc Felt Mountain built and expanded upon the themes and motifs Portishead had long been exploring. Tracks on Third, such as “Hunter”  and “Plastic” shored up on the orchestral soundscape developed by these two acts, and they inform each other if one listens to the two discs. The band continues to develop the music with a cinematic format, as the surprising entry of instruments recalls sudden drum beats, synthesizer crawls and abrupt endings. Portishead, in creating Third, gave birth to one of their most fully realized masterworks, one that builds greater power and makes more sonic sense over time. If you can’t picture electronica within an orchestral setting, you need to see this:

And this is perhaps the greatest measure of certain works of art over time. While other musical acts of the period were more successful, would anyone consider as serious musical landmarks the more popular acts of the day? Now consider current commercial fare and wonder if, asides from sounding like they belong on radio, they would elicit such response in 14 years’ time. Or would they just make harmless set pieces on soundtracks for innocuous romantic comedies?

Portishead announced their upcoming tour on their website recently. The dates are given below:

October 1 & 2 IBYM, Asbury Park, NJ
October 4 Hammerstein Ballroom NY
October 5 Hammerstein Ballroom, NY
October 7 Jacques Cartier Pier, Montreal
October 9 Sound Academy, Toronto
October 10 Sound Academy, Toronto
October 12 Aragon, Chicago
October 15 Mexico, Corona Festival
October 18 Shrine LA
October 21 Greek, Berkeley, SF
October 23 WaMu, Seattle
October 24 PNE Forum, Vancouver
October 27 1st Bank Center, Denver
November 10 Vector Arena, Auckland
November 12 Werribee Park, Melbourne
November 13 Parramatta Park, Sydney
November 15 Belvoir Amphitheatre, Perth
November 17 Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide
November 19 The Botanic Gardens, Brisbane

Without giving away the exact playlist, be aware that the typical set lasts 13 songs, plus two encores. 

Welcome back, Portishead, it’s been too long. You’re all mine – and ours.