Portishead

It must have felt weird to Portishead inhabitants about twenty years ago.
Until the early nineties Portishead was a small town close to Bristol and not many have heard of that.
When a band named after it appeared on the scene leading the trip-hop Bristol scene, in the company of artists as Tricky and Massive Attacks, the name became very famous. In a matter of months, that name was even less linked to the place.

If Portishead for some Somerset farmers still referred to a coastal town, for the rest of the world it meant the Bristol band who was going to change the balance between rock and electronica once again.

That was probably the last time rock music could still be localized geographically.
California had funk-rock, UK Midlands Brit-pop. There was the Seattle’s so-called grunge scene and, back in England, Bristol offering Trip-hop.

Musicians in Bristol merged together dance loops, ethereal singing, slow tempos and electronic samples in a music never heard before. They created atmospheres that were good both to dance and to sip a tea on a lazy Sunday afternoon. A transversal genre that was liked by the most different listeners.

Few years later, Internet arrived. The music world (the entire world) became one single big place.
Cultural geography has been cancelled since. Distances erased. New York, London, Cape Town, Melbourne and Montreal have not anymore been miles but only ‘clicks’ away.

It must be acknowledged, U2 foresaw it first. In Stay (Faraway, So Close), their last great song, Bono sings: “With satelite television, You can go anywhere, Miami, New Orleans, London, Belfast and Berlin…”
Globalization was born. Satellite televisions was joined by computers, browsers, telephones, iPads.

Portishead recorded a masterpiece debut: Dummy. It was 1994. That is one of the landmark albums of the nineties. A must have album for every CD collection regardless the music you listen.
Song as Wandering Stars, Numb, Glory Box define the period and have been inspiring for a plethora of me-to bands who rarely matched those magic.

An eagerly waited self-titled follow up, arrived in 1997. Being on the same line of the debut it wasn’t any better and the wait didn’t help. Still is a good album if you like Dummy.

Signs of fatigue showed up the following year. Portishead released a live album with the New York Philharmonic orchestra. Roseland NYC Live just rearranges their best songs with the help of a full orchestra. As often happens, the orchestra doesn’t make those tunes any lighter.
A sense of pretentiousness permeates the music, which seems to have lost Bristol’s fresh air of decadence to gain some American coffee-table-office-in-a-steel-and-glass-skyscraper feel.

The decade came to the end. The wind of change travelled over modems and telephone lines. Internet first, mp3 second, broadband third and social networks fourth made the fruition of music a new experience.
Portishead were too much of a peculiar band to adapt. They wisely stopped and stepped back to have a look and wait.

For about ten years nothing major happened apart from side projects, short appearances and endless rumours of a third album being planned.

It was 2008 when, a decade after, Portishead released Third which is, erm, their third full length album.

I must be frank. I was lazy and not enough open minded to desire listening to a new Portishead record in 2008. During the hiatus’ decade I moved country, changed job, partner, got adult and the 90s Bristol scene mirrored the previous me.

I read excited reviews about their comeback and multiple stars to any of the (few) live shows. I still I didn’t manage to catch the band live. Until last July.

Portishead have been invited to curate the ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in London.
Line up included most of my favourite acts, as PJ Harvey, Grinderman, Swans, Beach House, Godspeed You! Black Emperorto name a few, and a lot of bands I always wanted to check. Time was perfect for me to give them a try.

A perfect weekend up and down the Muswell Hill to reach the sumptuous Alexandra Palace.

This first weekend of October 2011 Portishead are repating it. They curate the American branch of I’ll Be Your Mirror, in New York. Different, yet amazing line-up, the will be headlining both Saturday and Sunday nights in a similar fashion.

I take this occasion to show photos from the London festival, most of which haven’t been published.

Before the concert, I was afraid that a ten years break then a comeback could be ruinous for the band. Maybe I was more afraid of my emotional response than the band capacity to deliver.

Were stories of such a golden past going to be diluted by a band trying to relive an “ancient era” and cash over the hits?

All fears vanished during the first song.

Not only because of the giant, sumptuous stage they entered. A multimedia installation perfectly complementing the music.
Not only because that music was mixed and engineered so well that I forgot to be at Alexandra Palace and sounded like the Royal Festival Hall.
Not only because of the amazing… AMAZING… voice of Beth Gibbons. It stands out so impressively. She can make a difference even if decides to sing TV adv jingles.
Not only because Geoff Barrow multi instruments platform has been update to be a multi instrument platform for the next millennium. He saves Portishead from any revivalism.
Not only because Adrian Utley guitar is something I never acknowledged as it deserves. He is the backbone of Portishead live show.

No. It’s all these things together that made the show an heavenly experience for eyes and ears.
Portishead songs are intense, deep, emotional and most important of all timeless. They worked in 1993, 2011 and will work in 2045. It’s only the great music that doesn’t get caught in their times.

Portishead didn’t even get caught in space. From London to New York to the world, these songs ride the wave, the net, the (electronic) mice and can touch people hearts everywhere.

It happens a lot to me to see bands multiple times on the same tour. When attending concerts few days apart, almost automatically the ‘wow effect’ goes by. The second time is automatically less exciting than the first.

Portishead played two shows in a row. Two quite identical sets. With many more amazing bands before them. Well, the Sunday show, who was scheduled in the tastier Sunday’s line-up of the IBYM festival, was as magnetic as the Saturday.

Eye-catching to the point that I got trapped into another late Sunday night-late at work Monday morning.

If you are lucky to be in NYC this weekend don’t miss a second of both of their shows.
If you happen to be close to the USA and Canada’s cities they are about to touring in October try to get there in some legal or illegal way.

Otherwise this is where to stay tuned with Portishead and chase them: [website][myspace][facebook][twitter]

Photo tip

I have discussed few times about the advantages of shooting a gig from the beginning to the end. What about shooting the same gig, even if for the first three songs, two nights in a row?

My rule is that more chances are better than few. It sounds obvious but it is not.
I know several photographers that don’t bother how many songs they have. They go in the pit, bursts many shots, walk out.
Back home, edit those 3-4 that looks above average and ftp to the agency straight away to get a quick sell.

If this is the approach going back to shoot the same show is a loss of time. There is nothing wrong with it. Actually if the aim is selling a single for a newspaper next-day review, it is more important to concentrate on speed (yours must be the first image to land on the photoeditor desk) and good communication skills (you must get networked to the best photo agency and they appreciate reliability as much as quality).

I am an outsider for many reasons, not only because I have been shooting on film. I focus on the artists and the show. I want tell a story about a concert. I don’t mind selling a single photo (those 40£ every 2 months won’t change my life), I aim to sell a story.

That is why there are hundreds of my galleries online spread over music websites. Galleries have a wider breath, don’t only decorate reviews.

If this is your philosophy, it is better to take any opportunity to shoot a concert you have been given.
Three songs are more than enough to deliver a frame, but a concert doesn’t last three songs so you cannot tell a story of it in three songs.
I dream the day that musicians, tour manager, promoters, venues and photographers will all work together to make a concert report as “in depth” as any other event of photojournalism deserves.

~ by Valerio on October 1, 2011.

2 Responses to “Portishead”

  1. Si’ ‘ggruoss’!!:)

  2. Thanks! ;-)

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