It’s no exaggeration to say that one of my biggest regrets in life is having missed Portishead’s iconic performance at Roseland Ballroom in 1997, immortalized on Roseland NYC Live—which, for the record, was one of the few live albums that nearly landed a spot on Slant’s list of the Best Albums of the ’90s. Following a decade in hibernation, the Bristol trip-hop pioneers eschewed a tour of the States in support of their 2008 album, Third, in favor of heading back into the studio to record new material. Far be it from me to whine about that, but it seems things didn’t go according to plan, and with no new album on the immediate horizon, Portishead has embarked on their first North American tour in years.
It seems logical to assume that part of the impetus behind Portishead’s decision to dust off the ol’ tour bus was to take some of their new tracks for a spin before committing them to hard drive, but save for the Moroder-esque “Chase the Tear,” a charity tune from 2009 that could very well be the direction of the group’s new material, the set list was composed entirely of songs from their three studio albums. Despite the absence of the New York Philharmonic, and an actual theremin, my only complaint was the scarcity of songs from 1997’s Portishead (both diabolical selections, “Cowboys” and “Over,” were highlights of the evening). Instead, the focus was largely on tracks from Third and the band’s debut—including “Mysterons,” which bristled to life almost as dramatically as it does on Roseland NYC Live, and a mournful, stripped-down take on the bass-heavy “Wandering Star.”
The show’s trippy backdrop projections were at turns mesmerizing and convenient (displaying close ups of turntable scratching and the like); during “Machine Gun,” the night’s pièce de résistance, a big, red sun rose behind the band just as the song’s chilling synth line began to slither out of the giant stacks of speakers suspended above the audience, transforming what I’ve always interpreted as an apocalyptic dirge, the perfect eulogy for the tail-end of a bloody decade, into something unexpectedly uplifting. Frontwoman Beth Gibbons looked like a Park Slope mom in her dowdy black sweater and jeans, squinting in the light and shielding her body with her arms at several points throughout the night, and I couldn’t help think that, our aural pleasure be damned, someone really ought to prescribe that woman some antidepressants already. But two decades in, Gibbons and her roaming band of genius misfits sound just as inspired (and inspiring) as they did when they were young, wide-eyed manic-depressives with their whole careers in front of them.