Looking to debut some songs from their then-upcoming second album, Portishead played their first-ever US show at New York's Roseland Ballroom July 24th, 1997. While the album it helped promote, Portishead, was a huge success (as was the band's first, Dummy), and fans gobbled up CD and VHS versions of the show a couple of years later, the DVD has only recently surfaced, under the name PNYC. Thankfully, the band has taken advantage of the DVD format and has included a nice selection of features on the disc.
First and foremost is the concert. For the show, Portishead employed the New York Philharmonic along with a brass section. Bands and orchestras are not a new combination - it's been going on at least since the Stones began to roll - but Portishead's approach was far more subtle than the dozens of additional musicians on stage would lead you to believe. Portishead's music has always been rich in atmosphere - it's like the soundtrack to the scary movie in your head. From theremin-like howls to scritchy-scratch samples, to dissonant noise, they've combined elements from almost every genre of music - hip-hop, metal, jazz, blues, classical, opera, punk - into a smoky bar-room groove that slowly oscillates between Billie Holiday smolder and Gothic theatrics. From the War of the Worlds-style intro of "Humming" through the descending, abrasive chords of "Cowboys" to the clean, watery guitar of "Mysterons" and the nearly silent "Roads," the selection of songs here is flawless, both thematically and as a representation of the band's sound.
The orchestra is used almost imperceptibly, sometimes simply playing pieces as they appeared on record, other times adding slight accents and body. The mix of turntablism with strings is bold, but the band's approach to both is the same, as just one more piece in the puzzle of their sound.
The show, as with all their live shows, orchestra or not, has a dramatic build. They don't necessarily record concept albums but they do seem to tell a story. Singer Beth Gibbons' traumatized vocals veer wildly from little girl innocence to stormy diva to yowling, wounded animal.
The music also tells a story, of despair, doomed love, and obsession. Even if there aren't explicit plot points, there is a progression of sound and tone that completely envelopes the audience at each stop. Something as angry sounding as "Half Day Closing" or "Cowboys" can meld into a P-style love song like "All Mine" or "Only You" with ease given the delicate, intricate beginnings and endings of each song. In fact, it's only on this live disc that "Glory Box," one of the bands most popular tunes, finds a real resolution (the weak fade-out on Dummy's closer was the only blemish on that record.)
Every song is a masterpiece (although the band seems a little unsure of themselves on a couple of the new songs) but the jaw-dropping encore of "Strangers" takes the cake. In typical, off-kilter Portishead style the band only really allows the orchestra and horn section to cut loose in the final seconds of the final song, building up to a crescendo of brass, strings, keyboards, scratching, guitar, and drums that sounds unlike anything ever recorded. The climax is truly dramatic and underscores the cinematic nature of the band. While it's been five years since the last set of new songs has been released, it's hard to imagine the songs here sounding dated. In fact, they still sound like what they did when they were brand-new: songs from the future.
The sepia-toned video look ok here, perhaps a touch overcompressed. There is a good deal of grain and the image has a gummy quality. It's full-screen.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack sounds excellent. It makes full use of the band's diverse sound palette and has energy and dynamic drive. The Dolby Digital surround track is also fine, if less distinct.
All of the band's videos, plus some additional selections, are included. The video for "Sour Times" is probably the first chance that most fans had to see the band and it still plays well. "Numb" is unremarkable. "All Mine" is downright unwatchable. "Over" is an interesting, simple concept. The best of the bunch, however, is "Only You," with its underwater visuals and noir lighting. In the time-stretching and manipulation it finds the perfect visual corollary to the band's loopy sound.
Of the short films, "To Kill a Dead Man" is a somewhat immature hit-man story that allows the listener to enjoy the full-version of that B-side instrumental (a text screen indicates that the band is a bit embarrassed by the cliched visuals, which were also used to make the "Sour Times" video.) "Wandering Star" is a neat behind the scenes montage scored to a very different version of the song.
"Road Trip" is a terrific bumper's-eye-view of the streets leading to the British town for which the band is named. In concert the video is shown to accompany DJ Andy Smith's history of hip-hop scratch-fest, which is a perfect summary of the band's influences. Here, however, it is scored with a Portishead mega-mix by Smith, which sounds very cool.
One caveat: The back of the box lists "Western Eyes" as being part of the concert when in fact it is just the studio version played over the credits. This is truly a shame since "Western Eyes" is one of only two songs radically reconfigured by the band during their normal concert tours (the other being "Sour Times" which is turned into a dirge.) It's a shame that neither of these alternate versions are on the disc, although the "Sour Times" redux is on the CD version.
Fans of Portishead need this disc. It's that simple. Anyone else should give it a shot. The band approach the show with openness to different styles and sources, and they aren't afraid to try different things with their music. For such a low-key bunch (there's no banter or posturing) they have a keen sense of what can make music cinematic and dramatic and they tend to do it with flair. If their future output is anywhere near as diverse as their past tunes they should have a long career ahead of them.