Bristol Colston Hall
It’s beautiful, of course. But then, what did you expect? Beth Gibbons appearing in a spandex jumpsuit for a thrash version of ‘War Pigs’? Geoff Barrow emerging from his decks to croon his Michael Bolton tribute version of ‘Sour Times’? It’s been four years, and there’s no sign that Portishead are capable of anything but this beauty thing. Call it a rut, but being stalled in this musical universe is hardly like breaking down in some dismal retro lay-by.
The moment Beth appears on the red-lit stage, her face in shadow, and opens her mouth to pitch the Theremin vibrations of ‘Humming’, it proves again how stupid it would be to become complacent about this noise. Sure, get blasi about it if you have the planets dropping round every Thursday for their celestial music evenings – otherwise, listen. Portishead aren’t complacent; this is the first of two hometown shows, expectation doubled after last month’s cancellation, and Beth cheerfully admits to nerves. It doesn’t help that Colston Hall is moulded in grey cement more suited to marching bands from Budapest. Yet if anything can crack through the coldness and bring a sharp new chill, it’s Beth.
It’s easy to understand why she avoids interviews – living up to her singing voice must be a struggle, like constantly being outshone by a brilliant sibling – yet she’s so much more than a cipher for all those ‘smoky’, ‘noir‘ Portishead clichis, more than some human dry-ice machine dispensing instant Gitanes-scented atmosphere. She’s a genuinely strange frontwoman. Sure, that’s still partly down to the shock of someone opening their mouth and making that sound, crumpling in on itself like burning paper at the end of ‘Over’ as the sheet-metal bass slams against it again and again, turning into the ‘Glory Box’ bow and arrow and arcing out over the audience or whispering through the breath-on-hair closeness of ‘Wandering Star’.
It’s far from your standard, just-add-trauma angst, switching instead from suicidal to homicidal, unsure whether to turn off the lights and cry, or switch on the infrared goggles and stalk the evil bastards until they beg. But beyond that, Beth is just so fascinatingly wrong up there; in the way her introspection suddenly shatters with a hair-shaking rock strut, or an excitable stream of words. “Thank you all for coming sorry about last time it was a scary one I love you Bristol,” she chatters, giving a thumbs-up and turning to the band only to discover – with comic double take – they’ve all sloped off.
From Garbo to Groucho in a second, yet there’s still a sense that behind that hair and smoke she’s the great lost personality of British music. But then, this is a band committed to sound, unconcerned about hooking in the audience’s attention like fairground ducks, more obsessed with the minutiae of mood. Sometimes, it gets too much, like watching scientists endlessly refining crystals – a whole magic world of difference for them, a slight shift in colour for the outsider. Yet when they do set off a pyrotechnic flash, it’s startling – the Boris Karloff piano shiver at the beginning of ‘Cowboys’, the leeringly jaunty swirl of carnival music at the end of ‘Half Day Closing’, or the remodelled ‘Sour Times’, a parched bossa nova collapsing into a terrifying, lonely panic. Don’t forget this is what they can do. Keep your nerves raw for them.