Portishead / A Hawk And A Hacksaw, Brixton Academy 17/04/2008


Posted on Apr 22nd 2008 12:36 am

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Feature: Portishead live, Brixton Academy

There could hardly have been a greater contrast than that between the high spirited Hungarian folk motifs of A Hawk And A Hacksaw and the dark overtones of Portishead. Playing their second date in London, a couple of weeks after the Hammersmith Apollo, Portishead took over the Brixton Academy in South London, ahead of the release of their long awaited third album at the end of the month.

Opening for the band were A Hawk And A Hacksaw, originally the solo project of former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes, which now also counts violinist Heather Trost. Barnes, on accordion and drums, and Trost, were accompanied by two additional musicians. While the quartet looked somehow quite lost on a stage much too big for them, they compensated with a powerful and energetic half hour set during which they showcased their blend of traditional folk infused with Eastern European, and more specifically Hungarian, flavours. If the audience seemed, at first, taken back by the music, the impressive musicianship and the engaging music rapidly captured the attention of the crowd. The band went through some of the songs from last year’s collaboration with the Hun Hungár Ensemble and pieces taken from the band’s 2006 album The Way The Wind Blows, casting a resolutely upbeat mood over the Brixton Academy.

After fifteen minutes of mood setting, with main lights dimmed, red lights flooding the stage and quiet ambient soundwaves evolving in the background, Portishead walked on stage as a pulsating bass was filling the air, and kicked off the set with Silence, which also opens Third, establishing right from the start the much rawer and organic sound of the new album. For those expecting the lush ambiences and rich cinematic overtones of the band’s previous work, it was undoubtedly a shock to realise that these had been replaced with gritty guitars, Spartan electronics and almost tribal drums. As the band unveiled more tracks from the new album throughout the evening, the new sound got progressively warmer reception.

The band wisely alternated between new and old songs, with the later receiving huge ovations, as if these were bubbles of fresh oxygen in between the darker, more oppressive new tracks. Glory Box, Sour Times, Cowboys, Strangers, Roads, Over were delivered with impeccable class, the voice drawing the audience in as the music unfolded. Despite part of the crowd singing along to the choruses – quite a disturbing experience considering the overall mood of the evening – these classic, timeless, Portishead moments held pretty well. At one point, the band retired, leaving Beth Gibbons with guitar and bass for sole accompaniment as Wandering Stars was rendered in attires more suited to the new material.

In the light of the performance, it is clear that Third was assembled to fit in the live environment much more than its predecessors. Whether it is through the torch songs, reminiscent, in their most acoustic corners, of Gibbons’s album with Rustin’ Man of a few years ago, the dark psychedelic tones or the grinding layers of guitars and percussions, Portishead have developed a much more organic and urgent sound which suits being performed live.

The soft folk-ish brushes of the first half of The Rip felt like rain falling on warm pavement until the textured krautrock of the second half altered the mood greatly. Equally, Machine Gun took on a completely different dimension to the version featured on the album as the thunderous drum discharge, bringing to mind early Cabaret Voltaire, filled the Brixton Academy, as close ups of Geoff Barrow’s drum pads were projected above the band. Gibbons voice, appearing at its most vulnerable, seemed somehow trapped behind the monumental beat pattern. Renditions of Nylon Smile, Plastic or Small showed the band in similarly sober mood. After splashing one last blast of heavy electric guitars over the hypnotic We Carry On, the band walked out under the cheers of the by then won-over crowd.

Dressed in black and interacting very little with each other, the three core members of Portishead and the additional keyboard and bass players appeared as cold and forlorn as one would expect,  their perfectly oiled set, with a good balance of old and new material, setting a sombre and hypnotic mood over the Brixton Academy.

Icon: arrow Portishead | A Hawk And A Hacksaw

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2 Responses to “Portishead / A Hawk And A Hacksaw, Brixton Academy 17/04/2008”

  1. mapsadaisicalon 22 Apr 2008 at 12:35 pm

    Thought they were ace at ATP in December, and the new album is (almost) worth the wait. Thanks for reminding me about the Rustin’ Man album – haven’t listened to it in a while, but it is a cracker.

  2. themilkmanon 22 Apr 2008 at 8:35 pm

    The Rustin’ Man is indeed a beautiful record, one that keeps on coming back onto my playlist with insistant regularity. I must say though that the new album is working very well for me, to the point where I have to stop myself from playing it over and over. I didn’t know what to expect seeing them live, but I thought they were absolutely spot on.