The music that came burbling up from the world roughly stamped as "alternative" in the '90s seemed the perfect antidote to the nature of the rock world that was constantly looking backwards and patting itself on the back for reminding themselves of how good it used to be. Which is why it's strange for me—someone whose musical education came of age around that time—to see so many people embracing that same spirit when it comes to bands that exemplified the college rock and alternative universe (see: The Stone Roses selling out all the tickets to their Manchester reunion shows in 68 minutes, Archers of Loaf filling up the Crystal Ballroom, etc.).
True, Portishead is one of a handful of bands that survived placement in a now dusty buzz bin thanks to the group's move to finally release a third studio album in 2008 some 11 years after their last LP. But, as it is with concerts like this one—Portishead's first time in the Northwest since 2002—the biggest initial responses the band received were for songs that came from their still bedeviling first two albums from the '90s. The first notes of "Glory Box" or "Cowboys" hit the air, and the crowd exploded with glee.
Even if the thousands of people stuffed into the WAMU Theater in Seattle were confused by the tone of the band's most recent album Third, the live performances replaced the wind out of their bewilderment with enticing jolts of excitement. It helped that the first half of their set was presented in as streamlined a fashion as possible. The serrated edges were left behind in place of more even performances that put the emphasis (and rightly so) on Beth Gibbons' desperate and agonized vocals and lyrics. Instead, all the fuzziness and distress was relegated to the videos that accompanied the bands; surveillance camera style shots of the band performing that were bent out of shape and focus.
That is until the midway point of the evening, after Gibbons and her chief musical partners Geoff Barrow (who moved between keyboards, percussion, turntables, and bass) and guitarist Adrian Utley unleashed a naked and spine chilling version of "Wandering Star", when the first brash and scratchy beats for the track "Machine Gun" sliced through the air like reports from the titular weapon. From that point on, they let the distortion and wow burst through the rest of the set in small doses (the big breakdown in "Glory Box") or large eardrum rattling splashes (the show closing, Silver Apples-inspired "We Carry On").
Unlike so many of the backwards glancing acts that are trucking out their musical relics for mass consumption, last night's performances was was an immaculate one that touched wholly on the past, but left at least this reviewer furiously hungry to hear where Portishead goes from here.