Rock: Undeniably, Beth is back on top

Portishead, Dublin Olympia

James McNair

As Beth Gibbons and co wandered on stage amidst the high and low tech paraphernalia which helps generate their sweet melancholia, there was that rare sense of being at the right gig at the right time. It began with a soft wash of crimson light, and the disembodied sound of a Theremin. Right from the off, the Dublin audience was mesmerised.

Strange to think that, just six months ago, Portishead's future was uncertain. Such was the pressure that the band felt to emulate the success of their double platinum-selling Dummy, they almost split up. Tonight's gig, the first of their British tour, was a stunning reaffirmation of their innovative trip-hop mandate.

Crucially, the live mix was superb, and each element of the band's carefully layered sound - Barrow's wonderfully articulate scratch breaks, Adrian Utley's Tales Of The Unexpected guitar textures - was clearly discernible. Drummer Clive Deemer, who on live dates is currently responsible for both the free-form, scattershot beats of Roni Size Reprazent, and Portishead's more languorous grooves, was exemplary.

"Undenied", with its cavernous snaredrum and delicate-as-a-spider's-web electric piano, was an early highlight. Inevitably, all eyes converged on Beth Gibbons as she struck a familiar pose. Back-lit by a white spotlight, her eyes were closed, and both hands gripped the microphone stand as though to steady her nerves.

The visuals were equally impressive. The film backdrop which accompanied "Cowboys", for example, had the same scratchy, foreboding feel as the Roswell Incident autopsy, while the rather dark and disturbing sonic narrative of "Half Day Closing" was reinforced by images in which what looked like a giant Rorschach ink-bolt dissolved into double-helixes of blue-black smoke.

During the final drop-down chorus, the female contingent of the audience gave it their all. Clearly, Beth Gibbons' sweetly intoned "Give me a reason to love/ I just want to be a woman" had lost none of its gender-specific resonance over the years. And if that sounds flippant, it's not supposed to.

Portishead tour Britain until November 29.

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