Portishead at the Aragon

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

The Flaming Lips revisit ‘The Soft Bulletin’

When an artist makes an album as good as the Flaming Lips’ 1999 masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin, you long to see an equally fabulous concert of that music — or dare one hope for a concert that somehow even surpasses the recordings you’ve come to love so much? Unfortunately, when the Flaming Lips played at Chicago’s Metro on July 17, 1999, the concert did not live up to the album. Sure, it was a night with an interesting and creative concept — a headphone concert, with the music on stage being transmitted by radio signal to headphones worn by each audience member. But the headphones didn’t end up providing an aural experience all that much different from the usual sound of a concert filling a room, and the band was struggling to figure out how to play its latest and lushest music in concert. At that point, the Lips had been reduced to just three band members, at a time when the arrangements were becoming more elaborate and layered. The band tried to pull it off live by using a lot of recorded background tracks, and it came off at times like a karaoke version of The Soft Bulletin.

In the years after that, the Flaming Lips transformed their live shows into confetti-filled circuses — an unlikely turn of events for a band that spent many years as a scruffy small-label band barely noticed by anyone. The Flaming Lips somehow became the band that knew how to put on a ridiculously fun party of a concert. In fact, after a while, the Lips started to feel like they were in a rut. Sure, it’s a blast to see people dancing around in alien and Santa costumes while Wayne Coyne cruises on top of the audience inside a plastic bubble, but how many times do you need to see that? And while the Lips fell into this routine, they largely ignored many of the great compositions they’d recorded on The Soft Bulletin.

And so, it was exciting to hear that the Flaming Lips had decided to play the entirety of The Soft Bulletin from beginning to end — including a show Thursday night (July 7) at the Aragon in Chicago. Now that the Lips are supplemented on tour with three extra musicians, they don’t have the same problems they did back in 1999 duplicating this music onstage. And finally! To hear the Lips play some of the wonderful songs they’ve been leaving out of their concert repertoire for too long — what a joy.

The show still fell short of the perfect Soft Bulletin concert I had summoned in my imagination. One flaw was that Wayne Coyne just talks too much. If he were more succinct and didn’t ramble so much between songs, it would improve the pacing. Still, it has to be said that his introductions to songs such as “The Spiderbite Song” and “Waitin’ For a Superman” — explanations of the personal stories and thoughts that went into the songs — gave them more emotional depth. Introducing “Superman,” Coyne summed up the theme of the whole album: “Knowing the wold can be full of pain, and what are we going to do about it? We sing songs.”

In some ways, this looked and felt like a typical Flaming Lips concert extravaganza, launching with Coyne in his bubble, along with confetti, balloons and smoke filling the air as the audience clapped and danced. The party vibe was infectious, but it didn’t always fit the dark-tinged and quieter musical passages. It was a relief when Coyne encouraged the remaining balloons to be popped before he sang “The Spiderbite Song,” sobering up the atmosphere a little bit. And as always, the Aragon provided muddy, echoing acoustics, not ideal to hear all of the nuances.

Those flaws aside, it was magnificent to hear songs such as “The Spark That Bled” — expertly arranged art-rock suites with haunting lyrics — played in their full glory. “Waitin’ for a Superman” was quiet and stirring, just Coyne singing as Steven Drozd played piano. At this moment, when I didn’t expect it, I found myself tearing up.

In an odd way, the bridge of “The Gash” — or is it a chorus? — feels like the climax of the whole album. It’s one of those rare pieces of songwriting that shows restraint, offering a catchy, soaring musical moment and then failing to repeat it. (This is one of the key questions of songwriting: How often do you repeat something, how many times to do play it over and over, hoping it’ll catch the listener’s ear?) Drozd sang lead vocals on most of this dense song, but Coyne returned to the mic for those cathartic few lines: “Will the fight for our sanity/Be the fight of our lives?/Now that we’ve lost all the reasons/That we thought that we had.”

That was followed by an equally moving performance of “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” which Coyne said was the song he was most reluctant to play. It still apparently stirs some raw emotions for him, and you could feel it in this performance. (In his introductory remarks to the audience before the concert, Coyne had said of the album: “It’s still kind of fresh. It’s kind of nerve-racking and all that stuff.”) The closing instrumental track, “Sleeping on the Roof,” ended with Coyne leaning into a footlight and making an atonal electronic buzz.

Appropriately enough, the first encore was a couple of songs from another big album, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon: “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse.” There’s definitely some Floyd in what the Lips were doing on The Soft Bulletin, and the band played a strong version of these Floyd songs. The second and final encore was “Do You Realize?” The confetti cannons were firing full-blast once again. I saw a woman crying.

Atoms for Peace at the Aragon

It’s hard to figure out exactly what Radiohead is up to these days: Working on a new album? Giving up on the idea of albums altogether? Just doing whatever they bloody well feel like? And what about the most famous member of the band, Thom Yorke? He’s touring now to do what — support a solo record he released four years ago? Or maybe he just felt like getting out onto the road again and playing with a different cast of musicians than usual.

Whatever his motivation, it was fabulous to see Yorke performing live again — and to hear the tunes from his somewhat overlooked solo CD The Eraser transformed into lively, spastic electronic rock by the side-project band Yorke is calling Atoms for Peace.

Atoms for Peace just played two shows at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom. I caught the second night’s performance, on Sunday (April 11). And sorry, I have no photos to post here. Didn’t get a photo pass for this one.

The entire first part of the concert, all the way up until the encore, was a track-by-track performance of The Eraser, beginning with Yorke sitting down at a piano and playing the chords that open the record on the title track. As much as I love the record, it does have a dry sound, feeling very much like something created on a computer. In concert, the music came completely alive, thanks not only to Yorke’s terrific tenor and his twitchy dancing, but also the accompaniment from Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, drummer Joey Waronker, percussionist Mauro Refosco and the second-biggest star on the stage, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.

With his short hair dyed blue-green, Flea spazzed out as he thumped away on the bass, bringing out the funky side of Yorke’s compositions. Even if you aren’t a big fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (and I’m not), you have to admit this guy’s a talented, energetic bassist, and his presence made things even more interesting.

Yorke has danced around a fair amount in the last two Radiohead concerts I’ve seen, but never as much as he did on Sunday night. At moments, I had to laugh at how Yorke resembled the old SCTV character played by Martin Short, Ed Grimley, doing his odd little dance. All Yorke needed was Grimley’s triangle. (I see that the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot compared Yorke’s moves to those of Bez, from the Happy Mondays.) Wherever Yorke gets those strange moves, they’re fun to watch. He looks like someone who never took a dance lesson but who feels the rhythms of the music in every part of his body, moving around like he’s possessed.

The encore began with Yorke playing three songs all alone. The first is a new song apparently titled “Lotus Flower.” Introducing it, Yorke said, “This is one you don’t know. Or maybe you do. I’d be very impressed if you sing along, especially since I don’t know the words myself.”

He followed that with a piano performance of the Radiohead song “Like Spinning Plates,” and then he played a brilliant acoustic-guitar rendition of the classic song “Airbag,” from OK Computer. On record, the song has so many layers of instrumentation that you might wonder how well it would work with just an acoustic guitar and voice, but as Yorke showed in this performance, it’s a strong composition that sounds almost as good when it’s small as when it’s big.

After that, Yorke announced, “Back to the present!” Atoms for Peace returned to the stage, and the band played “Paperbag Writer,” “Judge. Jury. Executioner,” “Hollow Earth” and “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses” — the last two being songs that Yorke released as a single last year. At the end of the night, I wondered what would be next for Yorke, Atoms for Peace and Radiohead. I imagine we’ll be seeing Yorke playing with Radiohead on some future tour. Will the Atoms for Peace experience change what Radiohead does? Who knows? In any case, it was very cool to see Yorke playing live again.

Here are a couple of fan videos of Yorke playing “Airbag” Sunday:

And here are some photos on flickr from the show by “Lost in Print.”