Portishead - NYC Live
THERE ARE SURELY MORE rewarding ways of seeing Portishead than actually watching them play. See, once you escape from the singularly unenduring image of 30-something musos standing on a stage, the sounds they make can feed your head with infinitely more exotic pictures.
If, like your Luddite hack, you couldn't get the limited-edition enhanced CD format of this live album to work, you'll just have to imagine your own accompanying film for it all.
'Humming''s long, spooky intro leads you to half-expect a voice to come in saying, "Long long ago, in a galaxy far away, Largnix the Lo-fi was the Grand Vizier of all Gnidrolog. He had a beautiful daughter, Princess Beth, who smoked a lot and looked like she had a hunchback..." But then that voice quivers in like a celestial tuning fork and we're back in Portishead's natural habitat of the noirist torch song, as the ever-present ghost of John Barry creeps portentously through the background.
The plot thickens considerably from here on in, though. Beth borrows Eartha Kitt's nostrils to do a supremely Cruella-esque 'Cowboys', then the aptly-named 'Mysterons' is all sci-fi soundscapes as the Starship Triphop lands on a planet with rocky terrain yet again and ends up being gassed with green smoke. Musically speaking.
...And you thought they were just nice little coffee-table sophisto background tunes, tastefully decorated with melancholic moaning. But Portishead's unique mastery of the black art of atmospherics is all the more effective and affecting live, as the sampled crackly vinyl and the 'we are from a dance background, you know' scratching that randomly punctuates their sound suggests a reel-to-reel pre-war movie or rubbish old transistor radio as often as a worn piece of vinyl. It may owe something to the shameless pretension of a 30-piece orchestra, but all this gives would-be monochrome wallpaper music three dimensions, full Technicolor, and dramatic effect.
The scene shifts relentlessly on, as 'Sour Times' is radically relocated to the Mojave Desert at midnight, all twanging, dusky guitars, and then it slowly, mesmerisingly mutates into the original version. Finally, just to deflate our romantic notions, 'Roads' has deeply inappropriate clapping from the audience, like they're suddenly on Pebble Mill. Surreal.
It almost makes you want to see Portishead. But ultimately, this record makes you realise your own head is still by far the best and cheapest place for this music to live.