Last year marked the 25th anniversary of Portishead’s Dummy. The album is as definitive a documenting of the mid-Nineties as anything by Blur, Oasis or ironic-era U2. But since then the group’s stalwart Geoff Barrow has forged forward with all the pace of a glacier creeping towards the sea. Portishead have released two further studio LPs the most recent in 2008. Who is to say if there will be another?
Yet far from disappearing down a rabbit hole of pop reclusiveness Barrow has undergone a surprising transformation. On Twitter he cuts a notably geezerish figure, more likely to bang on about Brexit or the football than to channel the pre-millennium angst that pulsates through Dummy’s veins. That slightly shocking matey-ness is also a feature of Portishead side project Beak.
Bearded and blokey, the trio specialises in machine-processed krautrock and mates-down-the-pub badinage. On paper, it sounds absurd that the tortured genius behind Sour Times and Mysterons would embark on a secondary career as the chinwagging captain of a jolly noise-pop three-piece. But goodness it worked at Button Factory as Beak spread their wings and unleashed a succession of irresistible art-house chuggers.
They had set themselves a difficult act to following by arranging for Lankum’s Radie Peat to open. She played an old murder ballad and turned You Are My Sunshine into a baroque dirge. It was astonishing.
Beak were impressive too. As per Krautrock tradition, the performance was driven for the classic 4/4 “motorik” beat, tapped out by Barrow at the drum-kit. Similarly, and in a very good way, songs such as Yatton and RSI suggested a fusion of Krautrock father figures Neu, Can and Tangerine Dream.
The teutonic severity was off-set by top class banter. Barrow and his bandmates Billy Fuller and Will Young (no, a different Will Young) plunged into an elaborate skit in which they read unkind comments posted under one of their YouTube videos. Barrow asked about Brexit (“terrible stuff”) and wondered who was staying around for bingo afterwards (he insisted there was bingo afterwards). Portishead it wasn’t. The room lapped it up all the same.