Portishead's debut, Dummy, soundtracked the mid-90s with a new sort of West Country hip-hop, built around John Barry samples and sultry unease. But their prototype for their music was so original and perfect, it seemed to render future albums obsolete. The band felt that, agonising over their self-titled second, and taking a decade to return with Third, which finally tears up their old sonic blueprint.
But last night's quietly successful return to London proved that Portishead should learn to stop worrying. John Barry's samples were never their real secret.
Beth Gibbons' soulful, secretly confessional singer-song-writing, hidden by Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley's sonic schemes, which stay almost indifferent to her words, is Portishead's unsnappable heart. Watching them last night, they seemed ready to let it start beating.
"Mysterons" is soon greeted like a long-lost friend. It is built on the tension that keeps Portishead alive. Gibbons clutches the mic, lost in her lyrics.
It's tempting to imagine Gibbons taking the band over, reminding them they don't have to struggle so hard, that all they really need are songs. Portishead show how keen they are on such unstructured busking when they briefly leave the stage for technology to be fixed. But when Gibbons sings "The Rip" as a smouldering English folk song, before the band add the spare, weird clatter it needs, yourealise they have it right.
"Glory Box", the song that soundtracked 1995, shows how conventional they could be. Gibbons kittenishly purrs its words of pleading sexual assertion, and Utley's scraped guitar shames his rock peers.
But even before Barrow's hip-hop beats dive-bomb it out of shape, the lack of cliché as those elements combine shows the benefit of the band's years of rigorous self-analysis, as if they were a strict Marxist cell. Maybe more bands should miss a decade, till they have something to say.
"Wandering Star" is taken by Gibbons, Barrow and Utley alone and acoustic, sat as if around a campfire. Gibbons sings of being "doubled over" by grief. She concludes, sounding like a wail through the eaves, a wronged woman's ghost. The least adorned song, it gets the loudest cheer.
Once deemed a dated footnote, by themselves most of all, last night Portishead's future looked wide open.