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Live review: Beth Gibbons at The Barbican, 09/06/24

The voice of Portishead brings the house down with her haunting solo show


In music, there’s so much truth in the phrase: good things come to those who wait.

In terms of Beth Gibbons, the enigmatic yet notoriously reclusive lead singer of Portishead – who hasn’t released any solo material since 2002’s devastating Out of Season – this feels particularly relevant. 

But tonight, fans have turned out in droves to watch this woman bare her soul in The Barbican’s famous wood-panelled hall as part of her sparse Lives Outgrown tour, which shares its name with the deeply personal album that tackles everything from menopause to mortality. And while this might not sound like the cheeriest subject matter, fans are well aware that Beth Gibbons has an uncanny knack for finding light in the darkest of spaces. That’s what makes her so important, and (honestly) that’s what we’re all here for. 

A few lines have to first be given to the sensational support from Bill Ryder-Jones, who, along with cellist Evelyn Kate Halls, managed to reduce this reviewer’s friend to tears in the first ten minutes (Him: “Jeez, what are these guys doing to me?” Me: “Strap in mate. We’re only just getting started.”). The intimacy of 2018’s ‘Don’t Be Scared, I Love You’ is breathtaking, and the perfect way to warm up a crowd for what’s inevitably going to be an evening of gut-wrenchingly beautiful music. My mate has a word with himself in the interval. Still, tissues might have come in handy.

From the menagerie of musical instruments on the stage, it’s clear that Beth Gibbons will be sharing it with a full band. Still, as they take their places, whirling neon backlighting their silhouettes and Beth assuming her characteristic 90s mic lean in near darkness, the crowd is silent. Weirdly, eerily silent. In fact, it feels like everyone has stopped breathing entirely, such is the power of Beth Gibbons and her command of a crowd. A guy filming her entrance is met with such stern glares from his neighbours that he bashfully lowers the offending tech.

Dear readers, tonight is not the night for smartphones. Tonight is silent because only Beth Gibbons has the power to fill it. And fill it she most certainly does. Sadcore, yes. But holy moly, sadness has never sounded so joyful.

Beth Gibbons - Floating On A Moment (Official Video)

Opener ‘Tell Me Who You Are Today’ (co-written by Lee Harris of Talk Talk, another band who dealt in sad bangers) is delivered with Gibbons’ side-angled singing style – “If I could change the way I feel/If I could make my body heal” – her bobbed hair throwing shadows as the violins soar. As a woman on the cusp of menopause herself, this writer finds kinship in Gibbons’ wonderings. The fierceness of her smoky Portishead persona has transformed into something softer, more matriarchal. More wise perhaps. And this vulnerability, this strength is given to fans tonight. Single ‘Floating on a Moment’, with its themes of hope and transcendence offers a glimpse into what’s behind the voice as Gibbons navigates her new body, and her grief. 

Most of the setlist is composed of tracks from Lives Outgrown, but deviations into Out of Season – ‘Tom the Model’ (the backing vocals: exquisite) and ‘Mysteries’, with its delicately stark “I’ll be there anytime” delivered against a soaring theremin – manage to suck the air out of the room once again. It feels like a muted fever dream, and Gibbons is simply taking us along for the ride.

While everyone knew they weren’t here for a Portishead gig, as Gibbons rejoins the stage for the encore, anticipation feels weighty in the hushed stalls. We are rewarded with the unmistakable opening chords of ‘Roads’, arguably Portishead’s best and most beautiful song from debut album Dummy. It’s a ‘pinch me’ moment, and of course, it brings the house down (silently, of course). 

There was never any doubt about what this performance would be. Astonishing. Heartbreaking. All of the above. I’m only sad that more people couldn’t enjoy it. Don’t make us wait another 10 years, Beth. We still have so much more to learn from you.


Main image by Burak Cingi/Redferns