A long absence makes the legend grow. And when Portishead hibernated for a decade — releasing no records and doing no tours from 1998 to 2008 — the cool, enigmatic English band started to seem like a musical holy grail. Oh, to see Portishead to perform live again — or to see it for the first time, if you were foolish enough to miss their concerts in the 1990s (as I was). And then in 2008, the band finally released its third studio album, sounding edgier than ever. But other than a performance at Coachella, no U.S. tour was forthcoming. Three years later, it has finally happened, and Portishead played Wednesday night (Oct. 12) at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom.
Portishead makes music with a very private sensibility, like feelings and memories echoing inside someone’s head. And so, it seemed appropriate how introverted singer Beth Gibbons was onstage for most of the concert, hunched over the microphone, her hair sometimes obscuring her face. Nodding her head was the closest she got to dancing. Meanwhile, the band — Portishead members Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley plus three more members, shifting around on instruments — played faithful but fresh versions of the studio arrangements. Films flickered behind Portishead as the band played five songs from its classic 1994 debut Dummy, one from 1997’s self-titled album, seven from 2008’s Third and one recent nonalbum track, “Chase the Tear.”
All of the group’s diverse influences were clearly audible — from the twitchy spins of turntables and aggressive dance beats to sophisticated balladry that evokes earlier eras ranging from ’60s soul music all the way back to the German cabaret of Kurt Weill — and yet it all sounded of a piece, fitting together into the distinctive sound that is Portishead. While the Aragon’s acoustics are often atrocious, it sounded all right where I was standing (maybe 100 feet in front of the stage) … except for the grating static crackles that destroyed all the beauty of the song “Mysterons.” When that problem was fixed halfway through the song, a big round of applause went up, but I’d have preferred a do-over of the whole song.
In the middle of the set, the three touring musicians left the stage and Portishead’s core trio played a beautiful, heart-stopping rendition of “Wandering Star,” with just bass guitar, a screwdriver running over guitar strings and Gibbon’s lonesome voice, which soared higher in the song’s final passage, filling the gaps in this spare version of the song with a wordless imitation of a symphony. Then the rest of the band returned, and Portishead launched into the jarring keyboard-and-drums riff of “Machine Gun.” What a contrast.
After acting so shy and understated for most of the concert, Gibbons descended from the stage during the final song of the encore, “We Carry On,” walking along the security barricade and touching the hands of her fans. When she got back onto the stage for the last moment of the night, she was all smiles.
SET LIST: Silence / Hunter / Mysterons / The Rip / Sour Times / Magic Doors / Wandering Star / Machine Gun / Over / Glory Box / Chase the Tear / Cowboys / Threads / ENCORE: Roads / We Carry On