Portishead live is much like Portishead when they get around to releasing new tracks – an exercise in enigmatic restraint. Somewhere between the constantly rolling opening sequence to a Bond film (including the visuals) and the soundtrack for a suspenseful mind fuck thriller starring Naomi Watts is where you will find Portishead’s live performance.
Even though all the members of the band are awash in a color palette of lights that would have been just as fitting at a Halloween show, it’s clear there isn’t much pageantry in their appearance and, honestly, it’s not necessary. The reason Portishead has always been so popular is the same reason they never would have made it as a band from the US in the 90s. It’s a devolved collection of vocals that mix and mingle with turntable scratches and guitar shrieks to the point that it almost feels like a computer trapped in some alternate reality is trying to communicate with you. On this particular night, that computer was very angry.
Though no fault of the band’s (they did their best to play through it), the sound went horribly wrong. Think HAL 9000 put through the ringer on Will It Blend and then filtered through nails on a chalkboard before ultimately liquefying your ear canals to a depth even Q-Tips can’t reach. Yeah, it was that bad. Eventually there was some amount of damage control and it was back to business as usual. As Gibbons’ vocals returned to a frequency understandable with human ears, it became clear that her poignant brand of coo is the glue in the band. Everything plays backup to Gibbons’ vocals. You might need a machine to decipher them every once in a while, but that doesn’t mean you can’t like it.