Portishead and Idles excel in Bristol in a one-off War Child UK benefit show raising funds for Ukraine
Portishead have always danced to the beat of their own drum and their much-anticipated return after a seven-year hiatus was no different at the Bristol Academy. Trump, Brexit, Boris and covid have all dominated the headlines at one time or another since the enigmatic trio last took the stage at Benicàssim in 2015. But while the world has experienced several upheavals in that time, there was a reassuring familiarity to the proceedings on a special Bank Holiday Monday.
Coaxed out of the musical wilderness by charity War Child UK for a one-off benefit gig to raise much needed funds for Ukraine, Portishead were without doubt the star attraction of the six-hour celebration of Bristol’s music scene despite what was ultimately a fleeting appearance. In fact, the sense of excitement was palpable throughout The Help! concert as those lucky enough to win one of the 1,200 exclusive tickets through the prize draw waited expectantly.
A bill of uniquely Bristolian artists preceded the city’s most famous musical export, who weren’t even the main headliners on the night as the world-conquering bastions of sensory befuddlement Idles took that honour. Wilderman, Heavy Lungs, Katy J Pearson and Billy Nomates provided a fittingly eclectic warm-up before Portishead took to the stage for a set comprised of songs from 1994’s Mercury Prize-winning debut Dummy and 2008 comeback Third.
The understated arrival of original members Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley, and Geoff Barrow was met with a rapturous reception – one more than worthy of such a unique homecoming – as was the haunting opening notes of Mysterons. Any concern that Gibbons’ trademark vocals had waned over the intervening years was quickly dispelled as her cries of “Did you really want” sent a chill down the spine as the stuttering drum roll beat reverberated in the background.
Magic Doors, the song that was described by Barrow as “an opening” for Third after their previous 11-year absence following their self-titled second album, provided another wonderful showcase of Gibbons’ range over its tick-tocking cowbell. It was backed up by the throbbing beat of Wandering Star, another favourite from Dummy that captivated from start to finish as Gibbons retreated to her fold-out chair having hunched over her microphone for the first two songs.
There was little fuss in between tracks but every moment felt important, with The Rip’s swelling electronica and simple arpeggios landing a significant emotional gut-punch. The only intervention came from Barrow, who had the unfortunate task of announcing that Roads would be their fifth and final song of the night. Well-meaning groans met the news despite it being widely publicised beforehand that Portishead were only playing a few songs – a fact Barrow reiterated with a smile.
Yet the disappointment at Portishead’s cameo being cut just short of 30 minutes was soon replaced by awe at a stunning performance of Roads, with Gibbons’ fragile falsetto – so delicate it often sounds close to shattering – stealing the show one last time. The consensus was overwhelming after the band walked off to thunderous applause: it was a triumphant return. Always leave them wanting more, so the saying goes, and Portishead did just that.
But while many would have gladly watched another two hours of Portishead – a statement uttered on several occasions during the interval – attention turned to the noisy matter of Idles, Bristol’s current hottest musical force. At the other end of the spectrum to their supporting act, the politically-charged five-piece delivered an urgent, scintillating hour-long set that pulverised the senses from start to finish as they played a selection of songs from their four albums.
Kicking off with MTT 420 RR from recent critically-acclaimed release Crawler, Joe Talbot and Co were in superb form as they raced through Mr Motivator, Grounds and Mother with the energetic abandon of a band relishing being back in the place of their birth. As well as stating his support for War Child’s cause and Ukraine – which rightly remained front and centre all evening – Talbot also paid tribute to Portishead after a blistering version of The Wheel.
“I don’t normally look so serious,” Talbot admitted. “But there’s something so fucking terrifying about sharing a stage with Portishead. I just want to be vulnerable with you right now and say I never want to go on stage after my heroes ever again.” It was a rare moment of reflection in a breathless performance, with The Beachland Ballroom (on which they were joined by Portishead’s Utley), Never Fight A Man With A Perm and Crawl! particular highlights.
Fan-favourite anthem Danny Nedelko – which tells the story of Heavy Lung’s lead singer, a Ukrainian immigrant and a close friend of the band – and Rottweiler concluded the evening’s entertainment with a rollicking flourish and sent everyone home happy, as did news that The Help! concert had raised £90k for the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. But as good as Idles were – and they were spectacularly good – this was Portishead’s night. Let’s just hope it’s not their last.