I had an opportunity to see Portishead live when I was in college. One of my roommates was going to their Chicago concert, but I demurred because I didn’t want to fall behind in my classes. I am, of course, kicking myself in hindsight. My one sole comfort was imagining that I had gone while listening to Roseland NYC Live, a live concert recording that featured Portishead backed by a full orchestra (that’s sometimes mistakenly labeled as the New York Philharmonic).
Released in 1998, the album captured the trip-hop pioneers in their full glory (read my review). Beth Gibbons has rarely sounded better while Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley, and their fellow musicians are tighter than tight. Portishead’s music has always been supremely cinematic, and the orchestral arrangements only enhance that. I dare you — I double dare you — to listen to “Strangers” and not experience chills the entire time.
Jump ahead 25 years to the present, and Portishead has remastered and reissued Roseland NYC Live. The album now features several tracks — “Undenied,” “Numb,” and “Western Eyes” — that were previously only available on the Roseland NYC Live concert film. The 25th anniversary edition of Roseland NYC Live is currently available via streaming platforms but vinyl and CD releases are forthcoming.
Portishead has been relatively quiet in recent years. Their last release was a cover of ABBA’s “SOS” for the soundtrack of Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film High-Rise, and in 2022, they performed for the first time in seven years for a concert benefiting refugees of the Ukraine war.
On a related note, while looking for information on Roseland NYC Live, I found Richard D. Bartlett’s “fan letter” to Portishead in which he reflects on their music’s impact and influence:
Portishead and Radiohead and Massive Attack and the other bands my brother showed me all have something in common, a distinct kind of attractive ugliness that was totally new to me. I could not compute that as a teenager. It’s still enigmatic to me as an adult. But a lot of your sonic choices are dischordant, out of tune, harmonically complex. It’s not all easy to listen to. Parts of me recoil, are pushed back. But at the same time, you’re making an impossible alchemical transmutation. Because the ugliness pulls me in, it says come closer, this is real, this is what a life feels like, its crushing, painful, meaningless, hollowed out, its loss after disappointment after fuck-up after another. But listen: that’s not the end of the story!
I’ve never really thought about Portishead’s music in terms of “attractive ugliness,” as Bartlett puts it, but I think he’s on to something. Their music isn’t exactly pleasant to listen to, and yet it possesses a richness and complexity — musically, sonically, thematically — that’s captivating, haunting, and even inspiring.
Consider this performance of “Roads,” surely one of the most mournful songs every recorded. Hanging onto her mic stand for dear life, Beth Gibbons sounds like her heart’s breaking with every single, trembling word she sings. Sometimes I have to steel myself before I press “Play” on it but I never regret doing so. I never regret feeling my heart pierced as Gibbons sings — with a mixture of despair, resignation, and defiance — “I got nobody on my side/And surely that ain’t right.” Or, as Bartlett puts it
That’s what I hear in the ugliness of your band. All this despair, grief, and loss. And the alchemy that turns all that shit into gold. Beauty, gorgeous beauty. Overwhelmingly beautiful. So intense it makes a thousand tiny hairs stand on end, from my shins to my elbows.
Just listen to “Roads” or “Strangers” or any other song on Roseland NYC Live, and you might experience that same beauty-from-ugliness, too.