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Portishead, the Hollywood Palladium, Los Angeles, 12/18/97

Having never been to the Palladium previously, I was more than a little surprised to arrive and be subjected to what was unquestionably the most thorough frisk and search I've ever been encountered at a concert. Evidently, it's easier to go through customs than to go see a show at the Palladium. Nary a stray molecule slipped by these folks.

Interestingly, although the Palladium was home to Lawrence Welk's long-running televised bubble fest, Mr. Welk was clearly not in attendance this evening. The evening started off with a lone DJ on stage spinning some deep beat vinyl and mixing vocal tracks live on a set of three turntables. Clearly talented at weaving and blending tones and beats, he unfortunately seemed to lack schooling in the tempo department, either that or his set was limping along on a particularly old pair of AA batteries. Thankfully, he didn't stick around too long. (Editor's note: Please read this for my, older, wiser thoughts on DJ Andy Smith.)

With that, the collective forces of Portishead took the stage, launching immediately into what could easily have been a soundtrack for a film noir which has never been written. For those unfamiliar with Portishead's work, they more or less created the genre of music known as "trip hop" a few years ago - mellow dancey hip hop beats layered with quiet vocals (usually a woman vocalist) - trailing in the swath they cut are fellow Brits the Sneaker Pimps, the Belgian group Hooverphonic, and most recently the talented (but still as yet little-known) Attica Blues.

It was a little difficult to anticipate exactly what to expect since their two albums have a remarkably different sound, with the quiet atmosphere of their first contrasted to the chilling sharpness of Beth Gibbons's vocals on the second. Though they reside well within the realm of electronic music, they were quite successful at recreating their haunting sound live, using upright bass, guitars, drums, keyboards, and Geoff Barrow on turntable. They pulled effectively from the styles of both their albums, meandering from piercing torpid quiet to forceful rhythms which hammered you into a state of slackjawed wonder, but don't get me wrong, Portishead have very little to do with optimism and hope. If anything, they are all about melancholy - about choosing to drown in sorrow rather than fight the pull of the icy undertow.

I'll be one of the first to admit that they're a little creepy and difficult to understand at times. Unfortunately, we may never know exactly what they're really all about since the core team of Gibbons and Barrow are a little hard to reach - she refuses to do interviews, he refuses to have his picture taken. I may not understand it all, but I do know this - seeing Portishead live is an exhausting experience - I'm looking forward to sleeping on the plane today.

Happy Holidays, all!

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