Anyone who ever talks about having to simply “sit through” gigs to find something special is clearly not a genuine fan. Let’s be fair – seeing live music is generally an enjoyable and positive experience – one that affords you ample opportunity for thrills, discovery and education. But while talk of simply having to endure gigs is misguided and should be sent swiftly on its way, there’s a nuance of something buried there in the depths. And that is the search for those perfect moments of live connection: those moments where atmosphere, music and emotion fall into perfect alignment to create something not only memorable, but actually life-affirming. They’re rare, but shine brightly within the tapestry of your life like embedded diamonds. And you never forget them. Live music is never about tolerating what is in front of you in order to see something remarkable. But when good becomes great and great becomes magnificent, it brings a rare and special reward for your endeavours.
On Friday 28th June 2013, amidst a sea of people at Glastonbury’s Other Stage, such a reward arrived fully-formed. Those who have witnessed Portishead from the outset know well that they are a band for whom the term “Quality Control” could have been invented. Heaven only knows the filters that exist within the mind of Geoff Barrow but it’s clear that three albums in nearly twenty years define a band for which the idea of doing or releasing anything half-hearted is simply not an option. But even by those sharply-defined and lofty standards, this show broke all seals, moulds and expectations. If it appears that I’m dealing in excess hyperbole, you can leave this review here and now. Because there is no other way to describe one of the most astonishing live performances that my thirty-one years have gathered. And on a weekend where so much was made of Alex Turner’s quiff and accent, Mick Jagger’s myriad costume changes and that Phoenix, as well as the various excesses of showmanship across the stages, the festival actually belonged to a band of quite glorious skill, power and invention playing in semi-darkness. And to an unassuming late-forties woman – clad in a rain jacket – singing out with every grain of emotion that she could possibly muster.
The opening salvo is stunning. As the galloping beats and tumultuous bass peaks of ‘Silence’ build against a minimalist background as slivers of piercing sound begin to push their fingers through, until it judders to a complete halt: upon which we hear Beth Gibbons voice for the first time tonight. Always close to perfect, tonight she sings with a wounded, naked vulnerability pulling at the fronds of her soul. “Tempted in our minds / Tormented in silence” she imparts, ducking awkwardly to the back of the stage immediately when the music takes over, only to re-emerge at the microphone moments later. The sound is pure crystal – perfectly mixed and delivered even on the notoriously wind-hampered Other Stage. The familiar opening chime and Theremin of ‘Mysterons’ wraps us (and the casual fans) subtly back in, though the trilling jazzy chords of ‘Sour Times’ are realised and greeted with whoops and applause – the sound of thousands of people singing “Nobody loves me, it’s true” back to the stage being a comforting reminder of the strange and beautiful breakthrough of this unique band nearly two decades ago. But no-one sings anything back on ‘Wandering Star‘. The reason being, no-one can scarcely believe what is happening in front of them. Sat on stage with only Adrian Utley’s bass and the deftest sprinkling of Geoff Barrow samples for company against her breaking, bruised vocal, Beth sings it with quite astonishing poignancy and timing – emotion dripping from every word. It is one of the most jaw-dropping live performances of a song I’ve ever witnessed and as she reaches the climax in aching falsetto, you start to wonder how a human being can sound so beautiful. At the end of the song, there’s a stunned second of silence before people can bring themselves to applaud, but when they do, the sound echoes around the hills of Pilton. Sheer alchemy.
As the show continues through their darker and more twisted chasms, it becomes abundantly clear how lazy and out-dated the casual stereotype of Portishead as a “coffee-table” band really is. Ever since their inception, they’ve evolved and morphed into a complex, widely-reaching and cerebral outfit; one that you struggle to fit into any major categories and how live, their combination of elegant silk wrapped around beautifully wrought steel and tempered glass gathers their many different album tracks comfortably and firmly together. ‘Machine Gun’ takes Krautrock influences and brutally subjects them to a drill bit – jarring rhythms vibrating bone and sinew as Beth’s vocals occasionally rise above the mix; desperately seeking air before being viciously pulled under by the beat again. ‘Over’ drips with icy, taut paranoia before being shaken by scabrous lead guitar, while 2009 Amnesty single ‘Chase the Tear‘ oscillates with electronic pulses and vivid psychedelic contours. And then there is the maze-like dynamics and oppressive walls of ‘Threads’, sounding like a journey through the flickering synapses of someone on the edge of a breakdown. But then in the midst of all that, we find ‘Glory Box’ – still sounding majestic, effortless and ubiquitously out-of-time after all these years. It flows and ebbs on that bass motif – Utley’s lead guitar tearing holes in the middle – before Beth’s cry of “This is the beginning of forever, and ever…” is suddenly punctuated by the doom-filled coda with perfectly measured feedback, vicious scratching and an assault on the senses before snapping back to elegant melancholy in a second. There is amazed applause from the crowd. People are looking at each other in sheer astonishment at this point. We all know this is something special.
And then, the sublime spins on its axis and becomes the immaculate. Within seconds of the opening organ throb of ‘Roads’, jaws are open and tears begin to fall. Grown men and women are hugging and kissing each other with sheer joy as Gibbons’ soaring cries (actually on the verge of breaking now) echo out over the field. It has been one of the most ethereally beautiful tracks ever recorded for so long but it has never been sung like it is tonight. And then, as the furious electronic clatter and clamour of ‘We Carry On’ envelopes the crowd like a gloved hand, something quite remarkable happens. Putting down her Becks beer and her cigarette, Beth suddenly and instinctively darts down the staircase and begins working her way along the crowd: embracing and shaking hands – the crowd in rapt amazement at this gesture of emotion from one of music’s most shy and reluctant singers. And then, as the crowd erupts in acclaim at the final close, Beth appears back at the microphone – face in creases of joy and shrugging with incredulity. “Thank you so much” she stutters. And then, almost unbelievably “I hope it was alright“. At those words, any remaining sinews holding your heart together finally break and fly apart. No Beth, it wasn’t alright. Far from it. It was one of the finest and most singularly striking performances to grace the fields of Glastonbury. Or any field, hall or stage for that matter. There are so many superlatives that could have been comfortably hung on this performance. One will do for here and now in summation: Special. Truly, truly special. And if these are the moments that life is made of then this particular memory will loom – black, gold, flawless and beautiful – above so many years and performances to come.