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Gig review

Portishead / A Hawk and A Hacksaw

It has been 10 years since Portishead (Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons, Adrien Utley) last toured and released a record (Roseland NYC Live), and a staggering 14 years since the release of their debut Dummy, widely considered to be the zenith of their career. Due to the strength of the record, they won the Mercury Music prize, ended up headlining festivals, gaining critical acclaim and a popularity that made Portishead along with other artists synonymous with the “Bristol Sound” ubiquitous throughout the 90s.

As for their long awaited 3rd album imaginatively titled Third, they’ve taken the melancholic atmospheric elements of Dummy, encompassed the dramatic, murky film noir feel of their eponymous second album, and evolved it into a darker, industrial, austere plane, loosing much of the accessibility of their first album with a leftfield swerve into an sinister a murky world.

So it was going to be interesting to see how the new material would translate live and how the sell-out Edinburgh crowd was going to warm to it. But before the main event we had Hawk and A Hacksaw a band that hails from New Mexico but plays eastern European folk music, unfortunately, although making interesting and engaging music their sound didn’t carry too well due to the size of venue, though their music was met with a mainly positive reaction from the crowd save a few trite drunken Borat impersonations. The band are due play the Tunnels, Aberdeen during Tigerfest and I’m willing to bet in such a venue they will be a force to be reckoned with.

As the anticipation built, Portishead finally took to the stage (cluttered with a plethora of antiquated analogue gear and a monochrome screen backdrop projecting the band and arty movies) encompassed by rapturous applause, they open with the first track from their forthcoming album Silence, with fascinating dynamics, creepy synth, heavy bass and drones it sets the mood perfectly. Continuing with another new track ‘Hunter’ which could work as the theme to the next Bond movie in the unlikely scenario that David Lynch was commissioned to direct it. Any hesitance I had over public acceptance of new material soon departed as the buoyant crowd lapped it up. Then came the familiar turntable scratches and theremin like synth of ‘Mysterons’, gaining a huge cheer for the Dummy classic. It was followed by Rip an extremely gentle song comprising of acoustic guitars, achingly beautiful vocals from Beth holding soaring notes in conjunction with a glories synth sound akin to Air with Kid A style beats. Then came those familiar bass notes and samples that heralded ‘Glory Box’, Beth’s Haunting vocals sending a shiver down the back of every member of the crowd and Adrian’s guitar solo gaining a huge round of applause in itself, not surprisingly it was one of the highlights of the night. This was followed by Dummy track ‘Numb’ which again was flawless, new track ‘Magic Doors’ another of the gentler tracks from Third but with interesting avant-jazz samples and an offbeat dark sound. Then came a stripped-down, bass heavy version of ‘Wandering Star’, outstanding versatile use of Beth’s vocals sounding almost like a theremin, augmented by reverb laden eerie drones (with use of an e-bow) from Adrian’s guitar, that created an amazing soundscape that no other band could replicate. In stark contrast came new single ‘Machine Gun’ bleak harsh industrial drumbeat, gloomy vocals and harrowing lyrics creating a claustrophobic, but enthralling sound.
Then came ‘Over’ from their second album with its brooding overtones and extend tri-hop scratching and samples. ‘Sour Times’ gets an extra special cheer from the crowd and it did not disappoint still sounding fresh after all these years. ‘Nylon Smile’ makes use of off-kilter, tribal like beats strange samples and minimal guitar with reserved vocals from Beth. ‘Cowboys’ with its ominous connotations and stoically delivered vocals, brings the set to a close, leaving the anxious crowd baying for an encore.

So it came in blistering fashion in the form of ‘Threads’, starting as a slow burner similar to Mogwai’s ‘We’re No Here’, with wonderful dynamic interplay between guitar, bass and percussion, very eerie samples and high pitched unsettling drones, gradually building up until it’s climax which sound as if you are in the midst of a Luftwaffe bombing raid with an unvaryingly high pitched air raid siren. The remedy to the shell-shocked audience came in the form of the intimate and poignant ‘Roads’ which is given due reverence (it is safe to say you could hear a pin drop). The night is drawn to a close in menacing fashion with ‘We Carry On’, with its slow driving bass, sporadic dissonant Sonic Youth influenced guitar, dynamic percussion and frostily delivered vocals, building to a cacophony, then ending as it had began.

The band left the stage with radiant smiles and an audience who were overcome with euphoria, living in hope that it won’t be anywhere approaching 10 years until their next tour and album. Portishead truly are a band at the top of their game and creative powers. This performance also reaffirmed Beth Gibbons as one of the most exceptional female talents to come out of Britain, with a style and delivery that cannot be equalled.

(Craig Harkness)