Last weekend Portishead, maestros of clammy, claustrophobic music, devised the perfect festival for people who hate summer. I’ll Be Your Mirror was a two-day event curated by the Bristol band at Alexandra Palace under the aegis of All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP), the indie live promoters. Both nights featured headline sets from Portishead themselves, crowning a programme that lay in relation to the feelgood vibes of the average summer festival as an Ingmar Bergman film does to The Hangover II.
For Saturday’s line-up, the panorama of London outside the venue was bathed in honeyed sunshine. Inside, the temperature plummeted: PJ Harvey was singing about “death’s anchorage”, dressed in black and playing an autoharp, an angel of doom serenading the fallen. Her set was based around her new album Let England Shake, whose war-themed songs were scalp-prickling. “Glorious Land” opened with a spotlit Harvey adopting a statuesque pose with an electric guitar before strumming an ominously rumbling riff as a hunting horn sounded – a dark and masterful moment of theatre.
New York underground rap veterans Company Flow delivered dense conspiracy theories over a powerful armoury of beats. It was a suitably foreboding prelude for the main attraction, Portishead, in a majestic performance.
The trip-hop pioneers’ unproductive recording career – three studio albums in 17 years – has given them a flaky reputation. But there’s nothing flaky about their live act. Expanded to a sixpiece, they opened with “Silence” from their most recent album Third, singer Beth Gibbons sounding bereft and accusatory as she sang “Did you know what I wanted?” over a niggling guitar motif and nervy beats. “Mysterons”, from their 1994 debut Dummy, was beefed up with a harrowing psychedelic solo from guitarist Adrian Utley. Multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow, the other member of the core trio, oversaw the abrasive krautrock-inspired drive of their latest material.
Gibbons was an enigmatic presence, morphing from ghostly folk-rock (“The Rip”) to sultry torch singing (“Glory Box”) and Patti Smith-style fury (“Threads”). “Summer’s gone,” she sighed in “Chase the Tear”, an oddly upbeat disco bassline mixing elation into the sadness. No other band plays on your mood like Portishead.