More than three years after Portishead's sudden reappearance, there's still an air of mystery surrounding the British trio. Third, the album that ended their decade-long hiatus in 2008, was one of recent music history's great curveballs, leaving behind the band's trademark moody grooves for even darker prog-rock explorations. Since they declined to tour widely on this side of the Atlantic after releasing Third, the short North American run they just kicked off – curating and headlining All Tomorrow's Parties in Asbury Park, New Jersey last weekend, then coming to New York's Hammerstein Ballroom for two nights this week – is the first chance for many fans to see how the new Portishead works in a live setting.
An ominous one-note bass riff echoed through the darkened ballroom last night as the band filed silently on stage: singer Beth Gibbons, multi-instrumentalists Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley, and three touring sidemen. Gibbons faced away from the crowd, swaying almost imperceptibly in the shadows as her bandmates began building a tense Krautrock rhythm. After a minute or so, she abruptly turned toward the audience and began singing Third opener "Silence" under a blinding spotlight. The crowd roared – then quickly quieted down, spellbound by her haunted, heavenly voice.
Gibbons sounds as otherworldly as she ever did in the Nineties, but aside from that unmistakable characteristic, nearly everything about Portishead has changed since then. The band that made sexy slow jams with a subtle undercurrent of dread on 1994's Dummy and 1997's Portishead is dead and gone, replaced by a gang of ghosts making spooky, nervous noise. That could have made for a schizophrenic setlist – but last night Portishead had no problem segueing back and forth between newer tunes (the spine-tingling ballad "The Rip," the pummelling attack "Machine Gun") and oldies (a sped-up "Sour Times," an epic "Over," a flawlessly seductive "Glory Box"). For all their evident aversion to touring, they remain a top-notch live act.
"Thank you all very much," Gibbons said after the very last song of the main set. It was the first thing anyone from the band had uttered all night. After a brief break, they came back for an encore: "Roads," a warmly received Dummy album cut, and Third's "We Carry On," a wobbly electro-motorik grind during which Gibbons actually leaped down for a bit of crowd-surfing. The audience loved it. When Gibbons climbed back onto the stage, she quickly thanked everyone again, using the same words, then wandered off with the rest of the band. Who knows when we'll see them again?
"Chase the Tear"
"We Carry On"