tue 22/10/2019

Portishead, Alexandra Palace | reviews, news & interviews

Portishead, Alexandra Palace

Portishead, Alexandra Palace

Nobody loves them? First tour since the Nineties handsomely rewards the faithful

'We Carry On': Portishead's audience was left hoping that they will - sooner rather than later

Few bands maintain their early fanbase for 20 years by barely changing their sound, their dress sense, haircuts even, and yet manage to mature like Gouda cheese, gaining depth of flavour and punch over time. But Portishead have. The crowd in Alexandra Palace in north London was largely made up of people who would have bought Dummy, Portishead’s Mercury Prize-winning debut, when it came out in the mid-Nineties. I even spotted three people wearing combat jeans.

This cusp-of-vintage style was perfect for the sticky floor and blackout-fabric-draped interior of the people’s palace, where even the smoking ban was being flouted by throwback grungers. Opening with “Silence”, also the opener for the trio’s most recent album Third, Beth Gibbons’s soaring supernatural vocals proved as potent as ever. Offset by Adrian Utley (initially) rocking out on guitar, Geoff Barrow’s electronic whirrings and ghostly light displays and screen projections, the effect was entrancing.

Gibbons’s performance is so intense you can see her shoulders hunching higher and higher as her body embraces the apex of emotion; her lips wrap poutingly around the sad words as her closed eyes sink further into her furrowed face. Predictably, the tracks from Dummy received the loudest shrieks from the assembled hordes. “Mysterons” was followed by the car-alarm wailing of “The Rip”. But the crowd first went truly wild when the "woooooowoooooos" of “Sour Times” entered their ears.

Absorbing the sound, for me reminiscent of The X-Files' heyday, and singing along to the chorus - "'Cause nobody loves me, it’s true/ Not like you do” - there was a flurry of dancing, arm-waving and swaying in the crowd. Such movement grew rarer as Portishead continued their gloomy repertoire, exemplified during “Wandering Star” when (and forgive me for guessing here) a catatonic state of rapture left the majority immobile.

Portishead perform "Sour Times"

There was a higher energy injection from “Machine Gun”, during which the booming sound was so loud those of us nearer to stage felt a small earthquake of reverberations in our chests and skulls. This was followed by more tracks from Third – the only album Portishead have produced this century - before their only new release in the last three years, “Chase the Tear”, was enthusiastically received.

This famously unproductive trio from Bristol, whose early success was followed up by their self-titled album three years later, and then a decade of pasture before Third, have done well to keep their fans chomping at the bit for them. You could argue they play rather hard to get. But although they are touring together again for the first time since the Nineties, it is clear that their form has not suffered from this or any previous hiatus. Ending with “We Carry On”, the audience was left hoping that they will. Sooner rather than later please.

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