ATP NJ 2011 Saturday: Portishead Pack Asbury Park Convention Hall

Jeff Mangum has justifiably been getting the lion’s share of the attention surrounding the I’ll Be Your Mirror festival; when a reclusive indie god comes out of hiding, it’s a big deal. But the weekend also marked a long-awaited return for the festival’s curators and headliners. Last night, Portishead stepped onstage in the Convention Hall to play their first East Coast show since 1998. Just before they took the stage, their simple P logo appeared on the screen in back of them, and the crowd collectively lost it, and then continued to lose it for the next hour and a half. This was a special night.

by Tom Breihan
I wonder if it’s weird to be Beth Gibbons, to look out at a teeming auditorium, and to realize that everyone in the room has probably had sex to your music at some point or another. To kids who came of age in the ’90s — or at least the kids who weren’t listening to Jodeci — Gibbons is basically our Isaac Hayes, our Teddy Pendergrass. And though Portishead is a studio band through and through (Geoff Barrow has said in interviews that they’ve generally not enjoyed playing live), they did an amazing job at bringing the dusky, cracking feel of their records to life onstage while at the same time playing around with their songs’ compositions.

Geoff Barrow, the group’s production mastermind, switched between percussion, guitar, bass, and turntables. He was impressive on all those instruments, but his scratch-solos were serious highlights. Like, say, Slash’s guitar solos, Barrow’s big moments didn’t exactly flaunt their technical mastery, but they always made perfect musical sense for their moments. Guitarist Adrian Utley ripped though delirious ’70s-soul solos or bottom-heavy Duane Eddy fuzzbombs whenever he had to. The group’s live drummer proved to be great at recreating Barrow’s dusty breakbeats without so much as a single extraneous fill. This is a group of people very good at what it does.

Gibbons, who barely spoke a word to the audience all night, seemed small and wraithlike onstage, her face usually hidden under hair and shadow. But at the end of the set, when she smiled huge and pulled off the world’s least likely stage-dive, it suddenly became obvious that she’d been having fun all along. Her voice was warm and tremulous, with occasional hints of Billie Holiday or Dusty Springfield, and it sounded absolutely incredible throughout the night, sinking into Barrow’s tracks with the same seamless fluidity that it does on the band’s albums.

The setlist included nearly all of 3rd, the band’s excellent 2008 comeback album, but it also found room for all the best tracks from their ’90s world-conquering days. And they found ways to toy with those songs, too, turning “Wandering Star” into a minimal duet between Gibbons’s voice and Barrow’s bass, or letting the built-up climax of “Glory Box” erupt out of nowhere, louder than anything around it. And every time the opening notes of another track rang out, the crowd would immediately whoop. Last night’s show was the band’s first on short, rare North American show, and if you can make it to any of the other shows, do not hesitate to do so. The group might not have released any new music too recently, but they are in a serious zone onstage.

Here’s a picture of the setlist, which wasn’t perfectly in sequence. (I’m pretty sure they flipped the order on “Sour Times” and “Glory Box.”)

Portishead ATP Setlist 10/1/11