Words: Portishead @ Shrine Expo Hall, October 19, 2011

Photo by Sung. Full set here.

I remember reading somewhere—years back, can’t remember where—Melody Maker, maybe?—a line that Portishead would suffer for creating their own genre. What exactly would constitute “suffering” in this context wasn’t clear, but the notion that they were creating their own sound (it didn’t quite evolve into a full blown genre, for that there would have to be other comparable artists in their class and there just aren’t any) was fairly prescient and has more or less played out, nearly 20 years on. Few bands exist so fiercely on their own terms. Three albums in 17 years? No big deal. Tour the States once a decade? No problem. The overall effect of a career like theirs can be to preempt the commentator, rendering them impervious to criticism. And if they really are their own animal and therefore peerless, how does one critique Portishead? For not being “Portishead” enough?

The Shrine Expo Hall, for all its lack of ambience and charm and weak sound and terrible sightlines, somehow was apropos for Portishead. Basically, it’s an old, big, dank, dark warehouse. Coming out to a drone bass note and simple monochromatic projections, the iconic capital “P” logo in Impact font, in cathode ray white-blue on black, they’re casually dressed, very little pretense about the presentation of such serious, heavy music. They’ve been playing slight variations of the same 15-song set every night on this tour, heavy on Dummy and Third and (disappointingly) light on their 2nd self-titled LP. Their 5-pieces are largely a traditional analog rock set up augmented by use of samples, though—and this is key—the samples are played by hand, triggered off drum pads and not sequenced by a lurking master computer. This gives them a true rock band feel. It’s not hard to why Radiohead is borrowing Clive on drums for the energy and swing he can give to even sampled beats. The crowd as expected whoops to Geoff’s infrequent scratching (on “Over,” in particular) but you sense he would rather do anything else on stage than work the decks. Hovering at the back, he mostly plays samples and percussion and occasional guitar. Live, Beth, in her familiar two-hand hang on mic pose, recaptures the recorded versions faithfully; she’s alternately crystal clear and gritty, smoky and fiery, fragile and powerful. That they can close out the night on a relatively newer sound for them, the driving synth/electric guitar noise jam “We Carry On”—Adrian in particular seemingly enjoying letting his Jazzmaster get real loud—is fairly exciting and hopefully bodes well for new forthcoming music in this vein. See you in 2019 at the next gig.