Portishead – Poble Espanyol, Barcelona
Bristol crew in imperious form at two-day festival in Catalan capital
Words Ben Cardew
As the nine-year gap and quantum leap onward between second and third album demonstrates, Portishead are not a band to do things by halves. And so it proved with ‘Two Nights with Portishead in Barcelona’, the band’s first dates of a short European tour that takes in Vienna, Verona and Rome.
Rather than trot out a conventional arena date, Portishead instead put together a miniature festival, one that takes place over two nights in the Catalan capital, using as venues the unlikely combination of Poble Espanyol, a model Spanish village constructed in 1929 for the Barcelona International Exhibition, and the hulking Razzmatazz nightclub, way over on the other side of town in Poblenou.
A model village, it turns out, is actually a very pleasant place to watch a gig, allowing music fans to take a short break from the action to check out Galician architecture and visit a sweet shop.
Thought Forms, the only band other than the headliner to play both nights, provide ample occasion for such wandering. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the band make a pleasantly doomy droning racket, but their devotion to subtly shifting layers of sound, which ebb and flow over 10-minute plus pieces, makes it possible to stretch your legs without missing too much of the action.
There’s doomy, though, and then there’s Doom — MF Doom to be precise, whose appearance on day two initially looked like being one of the highlights of the whole event. Doom wouldn’t be Doom, though, if he ever did what you expected, and in the end his brief live set both delights and disappoints.
For a start, he comes on early, practically unheard of in hip hop circles; for a second he appears to be on holiday, a world away from the shadowy figure of lore in a jaunty hat and shorts; and for a third, he’s all on his own, accompanied only a laptop that he strolls off stage to fiddle with periodically. It’s a pretty underwhelming set up.
Then again, if any gig is going to be reduced to just laptop beats and solo rhymes, it should be a Doom one: he has, after all, some quite impeccable beats and his lyrics are never less than brilliant. Doom doesn’t seem that into it, though, and after a brilliant ‘Hoe Cakes’, he wanders off barely 20 minutes after he came on, his enigmatic reputation hanging in the summer air.
In an ideal world, maybe someone as talented as Doom wouldn’t ever be second on the bill. But if he is going to play support, it might as well be to Portishead who, judging by their performance on day two, are in quite imperious live form.
They kick off with ‘Silence’, the rumbling, rolling album opener from Third and it is brilliant; a twin drum and percussion set up driving the song on like the gothic rock slasher it always threatened to be.
A brooding ‘Nylon Smile’ follows but it is ‘Mysterons’ that really gets the crowd’s attention: the song sounds as brilliantly otherworldly as it did back in 1994, only now it comes with added steel thanks to Adrian Utley’s resonating guitar, emphatically up in the mix.
And so the stage is set for a triumphant performance. Inevitably, perhaps, it is songs from the band’s first two albums that get the most acclaim, but rather than coast on these songs’ status Portishead revive them, twin drums adding propulsive verve to a brilliant ‘Sour Times’, or ‘Wandering Star’ being stripped down to guitar and vocals in an emotive take that plays to Beth Gibbons’ remarkable voice. ‘Cowboys’, meanwhile, has such brutal — yet clean — guitar force it’s almost heavy metal, albeit in the Black Sabbath sense of surgical power rather than Iron Maiden dicking about with prog guitar solos and monsters.
That said, it is on the newer material — songs taken from Third or stand-alone single ‘Chase The Tear’ — that Portishead really give an idea of what a remarkable band they have become. Machine Gun is devastating in a live setting, its stark, minimal beats a slap in the face for anyone whose thoughts remain so stuck in the ’90s cliché that they might dismiss the band as soundtrack merchants.
‘Threads’, last song before the encore, is even better, a demonic wah-wah guitar attack and shrieking vocals turning it into a suitably apocalyptic beast, heavy as hell and twice as searing. It has a real, raw power rarely seen in pop music these days.
The band close the night with ‘Roads’, a song that has lost precisely none of its power since first released 18 years ago — and unlikely to ever do so as long as humans fall in love and make mistakes — while ‘We Carry On’, taken from Third, encapsulates the band’s spirit of musical freedom and adventure, adding percussion flourishes to a driving beat, synth drones and clanging, off-key guitars.
The party carries on throughout the night down at Razzmatazz, with Clark’s melodic electronics a particular highlight of phase two. But it’s hard to get over the majestic performance we’ve just seen, Portishead proving with devastating power why they remain one of the best live bands on this planet.