Portishead Takes Toronto
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Portishead Takes Toronto

Back in Toronto for the first time in 13 years, the Bristol-based trip-hop pioneers prove they're worth the wait.

Sunday night's Portishead show. Photo by {a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/jajriviere/”}j-riviere{/a} from the {a href=”http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/”}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Thirteen years is a long time to wait for anything, but Portishead’s two-night Toronto run demonstrated that, indeed, patience is a virtue worth abiding by. Filling the 3,200-capacity Sound Academy two nights in a row—so tightly that Torontoist could practically have monitored the heart rates of all surrounding persons in the tightly packed space—the Bristol-based trip-hop pioneers were greeted with the type of unbridled audience fanfare typically reserved for newlywed royals. Through their flawless 70-minute set, the band proved it a reception well-earned.

Joined on stage by a backing team of three additional musicians, the original threesome comprised of Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons, and Adrian Utley remained the staging’s indisputable focal point. Visuals featuring spastic live-camera shots mixed with strobe light effects were fixed on the core band, particularly vocalist Beth Gibbons, whose witch-in-a-time-of-turmoil vox was left uninterrupted by onstage banter.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jajriviere/6230414161/in/photostream/"}j-riviere{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Gibbons’ voice is a machine unto itself. While some critics observed a ripening of her tone between the band’s 1997 self-titled album and its 2008 follow-up (appropriately titled Third), onstage she switched easily between the spooky wails of ’90s-era Portishead and the narcoleptic heaviness found in her more recent vocals, achieving studio-level precision throughout. Gibbons is the type of performer who can transition from national-crisis-levels of emotion (“Mysteron”) to almost subdued pensiveness (“The Rip”) without seeming to break a sweat. These effortless vocal pyrotechnics were showcased to utmost effect in a stripped-down, percussion-less reworking of “Wandering Star,” from 1994’s Dummy, where Gibbons’ jarring vibrato stepped in as drum machine.

The Beth Gibbons song-sorceress spell wouldn’t have worked without the acuity of Barrow’s and Utley’s own fierce chops—they balanced each other evenly without either one threatening to overshadow the other. In “Hunter” and “Machine Gun,” Barrow’s crisp synth pad drumrolls reminded the crowd (in case there was ever a moment’s doubt), just how skilled he is with his instruments; a prolonged turntable solo during the band’s gripping rendition of “Over” whipped the audience into a sweaty, 13-years-in-the-making frenzy. Adding to that was a high-octane encore of “Roads” and the hyperkinetic “We Carry On,” which one suspects made a crowdful of longtime fans relieved they had hired Thanksgiving babysitters.

The only complaint worth voicing with regard to this stellar showing is one commonly attributed to this particular venue: it didn’t work. Nothing about the Sound Academy is appropriate for a band of this calibre; sight lines were predictably atrocious, and the sound was occasionally, heartbreakingly, muffled. Still, if anyone can produce a mindblowing concert experience given these limitations, it’s Portishead. And they did.