Portishead, Apollo, Manchester

Apollo, Manchester

The last time Portishead were touring, Blair was a fresh-faced prime minister, Bill Clinton was appearing on television denying he had had "sexual relations with that woman" and the charts were full of girl groups like Cleopatra and All Saints.

Their landmark 1994 album, Dummy, arrived amid the early flowerings of Britpop, but cut a breathtaking, stark contrast to Blur and Oasis's triumphant guitar chords and perfected the influential and enormously successful music dubbed "trip-hop": slowed down hip-hop grooves, orchestrated electronic stylings and singer Beth Gibbons' remarkably mournful voice, a sound comparable to someone undergoing emotional breakdown.

If it were humanly possible, the band now sound even darker and more possessed than before. Their forthcoming album, Third, rattles machinegun fire and spaghetti western-like guitars over such cheery Gibbons takes on life as "Wounded and afraid inside my head/Do you know what I lost?"

Last night in Manchester, with Gibbons hung over the microphone, brow so furrowed you could plant potatoes in it, they sounded unmistakably like themselves but also different. With more guitars and drums than before, this is a rockier Portishead, albeit one haunted by the angry post-punk of Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Most startling was Gibbons' voice, more ethereal than world-weary, occasionally operatic, with an ancient, almost folk quality blasted into the troubled here and now. Of the older tunes, a stunning Sour Times and particularly Glory Box offered a reminder of how they can master song as well as sound, although the latter managed to incorporate earth-quaking dub and what sounded suspiciously like an Eric Clapton (Cream vintage) axe solo. The old Jimmy Page trick of playing a guitar with a violin bow was taken gloriously out of context over pattering jazzy grooves. As the set progressed, the bravery and invention of music that follows nothing but its own instinct proved impossible to resist.

While a penultimate Threads was the sound of self-doubt, which is to be expected after such a long absence, they have no need to worry. Scarring, provoking and often eerily moving, it's a delight that such uncompromising and adventurous music is still coming from Bristol in 2008.

· Apollo, Hammersmith tonight (0870 606 3400) and touring


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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