Live music has a reliable way of transforming venues into places they were not necessarily intended to be (see Golden Gate Park, Treasure Island, Cow Palace, etc.). Friday night at the Greek Theatre was one of those frequent but also rare occasions, as Portishead lead singer Beth Gibbons turned the place into a veritable opera house, her delicate contralto voice eerily echoing throughout the hallowed hills. And the assembled mass was as still and entranced as you'd find in any civilized theater space.
Few live shows subdue an audience the way Portishead does, which may be why this infamously reclusive group tours so infrequently. The music lends itself to careful study, each song a puzzle put together from various sonic elements, intended to toy with the mind, dizzying rather than emboldening. Few if any fans could be seen bobbing heads or swaying in any direction Friday night. Instead, we were mesmerized by the ranging vocal invention of Gibbons and a visual backdrop that pantomimed the dark subconscious of the Portishead songbook.
This current tour is its first North American jaunt in over a decade — save a headlining slot at Coachella a few years back. It's been about a decade and a half since the band rose to the height of alt-trip-hop legend with its game-changing albums Dummy ('94) and a self-titled debut ('97). But lapses in album releases and regular tours have left fans in a purgatory of mystery and anticipation.
There is a sense of shared tragedy amongst Portishead fans, much like The Cure and other New Wave forefathers of yore. Perhaps it has something to do with convincing nature of Portishead's collective dysphoria, but misery somehow never felt so right.
Gibbons and company took the stage in a veil of actual darkness before working their way into "Hunter," a sneak peak into the mood we'd be swimming in for the next 90 minutes. Gibbons immediately appeared to be a stoic presence, wrapping both fists around the microphone and easing her grip just a few times throughout the night.
Much of the set was devoted to capturing the signature sultry, lounge-y Portishead aesthetic. "Mysterons," the first song off their first album, mixed in DJ mixology with lazy, rolling drum fills and Gibbons' ambivalent-to-life lyrical musings, emblematic of their own unique miminalist sound, spooked out and tricked out in the same breath. "Glory Box" is another such number, an equally devastated and devastating song, with deranged guitars and a fit-for-Halloween guitar solo.
Newer material, from the 2008 album Third, seemed more of the mind-numbing variety. Songs like "Machine Gun," with its jarring re-creation of an actual machine gun, began as dark, odd-metered explorations, before the six-piece band figured out how to unite in the most triumphant way, with blasts of percussion giving way to a sonorous sunrise. Similarly, "The Rip" is all minor-mode noir before a beat and a pulsing, 8-bit-video-game synth riff kicks in. By then, things had evolved, but sans cliched breakdowns or solos or happy ending trappings.
All the built up tension seemed to be released when it came time to call for an encore — the place erupted. They returned the Thank You with "Roads," their most recognizable hit to date, and another lolligagging affair of atmosphere and drama. Somehow Gibbons shapes this seemingly formless song and its echoing guitar melody into something personal and meaningful — yet another reminder that her voice could suit a variety of stages. But for now we'll gladly keep the door open for her at any venue she'd like to re-imagine.