adventures of an american housewife in the south of france

Live Music in the South of France: Portishead in Nîmes

Bonjour a tous!  Well, first I want to apologize for missing my deadline.  Luckily, my editor is very forgiving and accepts bribes so I was still able to publish my post.  I really wanted to be the one who reviewed the Portishead show because it was a show I had been waiting 15 years to see (yes, I’m old as the Haute Housewife constantly reminds me).  I had always been a huge fan of Dummy, their self-titled album, and the Roseland NYC album.  It was the latter that got me really excited about seeing them because it proved that their albums translated really well to a live show (not always the case with a band using samples and a lot of studio post-production).  However, when this album came out in 1998, the days of Portishead concerts were pretty much done.

album cover

Then ten years later, the announcement came that they’d be playing Coachella which of course always means a San Francisco show.  That was the year the wife and I got engaged and went to a bunch of Spring weddings so once again Portishead continued its elusive status in my life.  Well, I guess all it took was me moving to France to finally see them!  Right when we moved in our new apartment, we met our neighbors and discovered that they also loved going to live shows.  They told us that they’d be seeing Portishead in Nimes and I became instantly giddy and invited ourselves with an emphatic “We want to go!”  Not sure the French are really used to my hyper American ways, but luckily I didn’t scare them off and they were nice enough to help buy our tickets at the local FNAC.  That was in May, then finally July 19th came around… I ran home from work and we hopped in the car and started the short drive to Nimes.  Well, it wasn’t really that short due to the traffic and tough parking, but we made it in plenty of time.  As we were walking to the Arènes, we could hear the sounds of Mogwai, who was opening, throughout the city.  Walking up to see this view, hearing their creepy/loud music, and knowing I’d finally be seeing Portishead – well, it was a moment, I’ll never forget.

Arènes de Nimes

We walked up a huge flight of stairs to an epic view of the stadium.  I’ve been to the Greek in Berkeley many times… it’s my favorite Bay Area venue.  I’ve always loved the pillars and the stone décor.  It always felt so classic and cool.  However, I think now that may be a little tainted.  This was the real deal.  It was old, like really old.  Like actual Romans built this thing.  Lots of people have died in this place and other people were probably cheering.  It was big, but you could see well from everywhere.  And the sound… wow.  Crystal clear and loud.  Actually for Mogwai, it was too loud.  We missed most of their show and I was totally cool with that.  I could only handle a few of their songs.  They presented this wall of sound that was physically punishing.  It was a challenge.  I have never seen an opening band start off so loud.  Like I said, it was great background music walking through Nimes, but I was ready for the real show to start.

pretty amazing, huh?

Finally lights went down and I they opened with the first song “Silence” from their most recent album Third.  It was an appropriate choice since the song starts off with a sample of someone speaking in French.  I always laugh about this song because I bought Third on vinyl and the first time I played it I thought Beth Gibbons’ voice sounded really weird.  Portishead is known for some slow songs, but this seemed really slow.  After a few minutes, I finally realized that the 2-record set consisted of 45s and not the usual 33s.  I flipped the switch and was back to the driving beats and scratchy guitars of the opener.  Anyway, back to the show… the third song is really when the show kicked in for me with one of my favorites, "Mysterons."  When the scratching kicked in followed quickly by the haunting swoons of Ms. Gibbons, I literally got chills.  It was at this point when I was really wishing I could stand up and dance.  Of course, Portishead doesn’t really bring the traditional dance party, but at the same time they have these really engaging beats and it’s so hard to sit still.  During "Mysterons," you couldn’t help but feel like this band was so ahead of their time.  That song dropped in 1994 and still felt so fresh and relevant.  1994?!  The blend of hip-hop, rock, and electronic genres… it’s the same thing that so many bands are still trying to do today.  The difference is that a) Portishead has figured out the balance and has been doing it for almost 20 years, and b) they have Beth Gibbons. In general, I listen to more bands with male vocalists (probably because there are more of them), but there are just some notes and sounds that girls can hit way better than guys.  It’s obviously one of the key defining characteristics of Portishead.  From the eerie “woooooohhhs” to the emotionally charged lyrics, Beth’s voice can be equal parts uplifting and soul crushing at the same time.  The song that really highlighted this rollercoaster was “Wandering Star”.  They played a stripped down version with only the bass a drum and Beth.  The entire crowd was on the edge of their seat with each word she sang.  “The blackness… of darkness.  Forever.  Wandering Stars.”  So depressing.  Yet, then you look up at the sky above this beautiful arena and see a sky full of stars.  The big dipper perfectly positioned above us.  And suddenly all you could do was smile.

image source: concertsandco

After that, the crowd was completely numbed and the band appropriately shook things up with "Machine Gun".  A percussion-heavy, high-energy rocker that got everyone grooving again.  I haven’t mentioned to this point the video projections and lights during the show.  I was really impressed.  For some songs, like "Machine Gun," they used small on-stage cameras that were put through a cool black and white filter.  They would layer multiple pictures on top of each other and the drum beats would cause a cool distortion effect.  Other times, they were showing some well scripted videos/cartoons that were perfectly timed with the transitions of the song.  There was one hand drawn cartoon that they showed which looked like it was done with crayons.  It was about pollution, poverty, society, in general how people suck… totally creepy and I couldn’t keep my eyes off it.

what a show

You can see the full setlist above.  It was a great show.  They played everything I wanted to hear, and more importantly they put on one hell of a show.  It was exactly what I was hoping for… and more.  They are true professionals.  They reminded me of Radiohead in that manner… excellent lights, great video, flawless playing, humble stage presence, and impeccable sound.  Not all bands can pull all of this off, and it’s what separates the good from the great.  My only complaint was that I wanted the show to keep going.  I guess I’ll have to wait until next time… which is hopefully not another 15 years away.  

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