Released: April 1, 1998
Documenting Portishead’s July 24, 1997 concert at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom (which sadly closed in 2014), Roseland, Live NYC was released (on both CD and DVD) back in late 1998. Not only is Portishead’s one and only official live release one of the best sounding concert records of all time, it also may very well be the band’s defining statement.
You see, the genius of this record lies in the way the pioneering trip-hop trio (consisting of vocalist Beth Gibbons, drummer Geoff Barrow, and guitarist Adrian Utley) were able to reinterpret selections from their first two studio LPs without sacrificing any of the haunting details that characterized the music’s intricate production. Little (if anything) is lost while some impressive new ground is gained through the music’s translation from the studio to the stage–a credit to everyone involved.
And while the core musicians all deliver one flawless performance after another, it’s the addition of the casually-dressed New York Philharmonic that is truly this album’s defining masterstroke. While fan-favorites like “Cowboys”, “Glory Box”, and “Only You” come off predictably well, songs such as “Humming” and the showstopping “All Mine” are elevated to another plane of awesomeness by way of the judiciously implemented orchestral embellishments.
That said, the song that perhaps benefits most from the ‘live’ treatment is the band’s mega-single (at least in America), “Sour Times.” In place of the studio version’s claustrophobic production and subdued vocals is a slow-burn-to-a-crescendo performance that culminates with Portishead going ‘amps-to-eleven’ for the song’s final act. Not only did they offer a different take on an admittedly ‘played out’ single, but Portishead managed to provide an emotional climax to an already captivating set by way of the re-vamped tune.
Everyone here is in top form, but Beth Gibbons truly shines throughout the set. Any thought of Gibbons as merely a ‘studio’ voice (the singer admittedly had little ‘live’ experience prior to joining Portishead) is quickly dispelled as she turns in one perfectly note-for-note performance after another. Deviations from the source material are admittedly rare, but when Gibbons chooses to add some additional snarl or an extra run, it’s always to the benefit of the song.
A long time ago, in what feels like another life at this point, I enjoyed a near-decade-long stint as a record store clerk. And without a doubt, the question I would most often get asked by wide-eyed customers staring at a wall of unfamiliar music, intent on exploring some new band was “which one would you recommend?”
Usually, the answer was easy and obvious. Rarely was it a ‘greatest hits.’ And almost never would my answer be a live record. But in the case of Portishead, Roseland, Live NYC was my suggestion every single time.