16 November 2011

Live Review: Portishead at Vector Thu 10 Nov

Vector Arena
Thursday 10 Nov 2011

"Evening. Bit of a shaky start."

Those were singer Beth Gibbons' first words to the crowd at Vector Arena, three songs into what was actually a triumphant return for Portishead to New Zealand, fourteen years since they were last here. She didn't address the audience again until the end, when she simply repeated "Thank you, thanks!" as the band took their deserved bows.

And yet she - and the rest of Portishead's touring party - had us enraptured throughout.

Gibbons was joined on stage by fellow core members Geoff Barrow (percussion, scratching, keys, guitar and goodness knows what else) and Adrian Utley (guitar, keys); a drummer, bass player and additional keyboardist. When VOLUME magazine spoke with Utley a few weeks back he professed the band had been rehearsing hard to play as much as possible of the material live, rather than relying on loops and samples. This approach paid rich dividends, as the bands' playing was close to immaculate, with many genuinely breath-taking moments - particularly the big drops and drums, eerie harmonies and hip hop scratches of tracks like Cowboys, Glory Box and Machine Gun.

Those moments - indeed, most of the show - were enhanced by the syncing of the absolutely massive - and equally impressive - LED screen behind the band, which took up the entire width and height of the stage. The visuals segued from underwater shots of seaweed to oscillating whirlpools; from an incredible bright orange-red rising sun to crackling, scratchy, grainy and extremely (mis-)treated live footage - often layered atop one another. The lighting too was spectacular, with one particular standout moment the stark, bright red backlighting during a crackling hot reading of Glory Box.

At several points mobile phones were held aloft in the audience in a manner not unlike lighters at a rock gig; and there were moments when crunching guitars, the power of two live drummers and layers of keys created an epic, stadium-like feel despite the confines of a truncated Vector.

A friend remarked, "...they're so much better live!" and that summed it up nicely: the show was everything you would expect from Portishead if you'd only heard their albums - moody, eerie beats and a cinematic, widescreen sound - with that extra bit of polish which goes a long way to explaining their continuing appeal, despite their famed "relaxed" album released schedule.

A master-class in tension and release, both musically and visually, and a hugely impressive - and appreciated - return.

This review originally appeared in VOLUME magazine issue #011

Read the interview with Adrian Utley of Portishead here.

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