Portishead & Mercury Rev Review

I arrived early enough to take in the surrounds of Belvoir Ampitheatre in the daylight (my first time at the venue) and I was glad I did. Sure it’s inconveniently far from the city but the field setting, neighbouring bushland, and so many great vantage points to view the stage makes it a great venue. The owners might want to install a few more lights on the paths though – with hordes of people  navigating the steps in the darkness (some of them chemically altered) I was surprised to not see anyone take a tumble.

My first view of the ampitheatre as it started to fill up

Mercury Rev kicked things off and I staked out a spot close to the stage in the sparsely populated “pit”. The only other time I’d seen the band was when they supported Coldplay a few years earlier, which was a little awkward. It was clear that only a small handful of the Coldplay fans cared at all about Mercury Rev, and the band seemed to know it – covering up the gaps between songs with excessive feedback rather than giving the crowd a chance at half hearted applause. This time they were more at ease, with singer Jonathan Donahue beaming his way through the set and looking genuinely appreciative of the crowd response. Still, to begin with, something about it felt lacklustre. Perhaps the sunlight made it difficult to set the mood and made Jonathan’s stage moves look more ridiculous than necessary (ie. a lot of arms outstretched and exaggerated conducting of his band mates).

But as the sun set, the band let loose with an especially rocking, extended outro to Opus 40 from their most acclaimed album, Deserter’s Songs, and from that point everything came together. With the latter part of the set including a surprise cover (which unfortunately I can’t remember the name of or how it went but I do remember I enjoyed their version) as well as the sublime The Dark is Rising and fan favourite, Goddess on a Hi-way – the night was off to a good start.

Jonathan conducting an imaginary orchestra during 'The Dark is Rising'

Shortly after, Portishead took to the stage and without saying a word launched into a great rendition of Silence, the opening track from their latest album, Third. The set consisted largely of tracks from this new album, but where most bands would annoy their fans no end if they took a 11 year break between releases then only played a handful of their old songs, Portishead had the audience eating out of their hands. Those who entered the amphitheatre determined that only the band’s old material was worth their praise must have felt their resolve slipping minute by minute. That said, there were quite a few tracks from their super-popular 1994 album, Dummy, and these were often highlights. Glory Box, complete with extra-intense electronic freakout, never sounded better and the stripped back version of Wandering Star was beyond beautiful. Few voices can express pain with as much intensity as Beth Gibbons, so removing everything but the driving bass riff and a softly noodling guitar from the song created something so gorgeously fragile that the whole ampitheatre was surely captivated. The band also made great use of the video screen behind them, most uniquely with a bizarre animation during slow burner, The Rip, and most amusingly with visions of an evil Tony Abbot shooting red lasers out of his eyes.

Beth Gibbons fronting Portishead

The only low point was Chase the Tear, one of the band’s newest songs. Having never heard the track before it’s hard to know if it’s the fault of the song or their rendition on the night, but it felt more like a half-hearted Kraftwerk B-Side than a Portishead song.

A bit more crowd interaction would have been nice too (barely a word was spoken) but then again, banter seems a bit unnecessary with a band that communicate through their music so well. Plus Beth did race down to the barrier and touch everyone’s hands in the front row.

After album closer, Threads, Beth indicated the show might be over – saying “I’m tired and cold, goodnight,” but the lingering roadies made it clear there would be an encore. Sure enough, they returned for two more songs (Third’s We Carry On and the older Roads) before it was time to vacate the premises.

The final part of my night involved half an hour of searching for my car in Belvoir’s makeshift parking lot then another half hour of inching my way out the exit gate, but having witnessed such unique and talented musicians doing what they do best – my spirits remained high the whole journey home.

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