The last time Portishead showed up in Chicago, the year was 1998. They are a temperamental band at best, taking their sweet time in creating new music and equally so in scheduling live shows. Every indication is that they don’t much care to do what’s expected of them, and in that way it also makes them a more compelling band. Case in point: Portishead’s last record Third was released 3.5 years ago. They only halfway toured to support it then, only really stopping by North America to play Coachella before leaving again. For whatever reason, and not because they’ve been working on new material or have anything in particular to promote, Portishead just now chose to come back to the U.S. for about a dozen dates. They rolled into Chicago last night for a sold out mid-week show, acting like a parent that abandoned you 12 years ago and suddenly shows up wanting to pick up right where they left off as if nothing had happened. The truth is, they’ve changed and we’ve changed in that massive gap, but by no means does either of us have to accept that fact. You make the best of the time you’re given.

Portishead started their set at the Aragon the same way most bands start their live show – with the first track off the last record they released. In this case it was “Silence”, and though the crowd was cheering loudly as the band emerged on stage, they let out an even louder roar once the spoken word intro to the song began to play. The band came more than prepared too. The main trio of Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley had a few utility players on hand to help recreate and/or supplement what they’ve done on record, with Barrow being the multi-instrumental crux upon which the rest of the band turned. He held down center stage but positioned himself behind Gibbons and her microphone. Barrow was more than solid from start to finish, but his biggest moments of shining glory came primarily in the second half of the set. On “Machine Gun” he pounded the drum pads with more precision and speed than on record, while on “Over” and “Cowboys” he showed off turntable scratching skills that would make most DJs jealous.

Gibbons certainly held her own for the duration too, as any lead singer tends to secure all the praise or blame for the entire band because he or she has a microphone and can engage with the crowd easier. Her vocals were strong and piercing, interacting playfully with the highs and lows and general tension the rest of the band provided. She tore through “The Rip” and prevented its slow pace from devolving into something that might have otherwise brought the set to a screeching halt. When the band got loud or harsh, as songs like “Threads” and “We Carry On” do, she always seemed to cut through the fray and act as a counterweight. Yet in spite of her warming presence amid icy melodies, Gibbons remained otherwise distant for much of the night, not really saying a word between songs and often turning away from the crowd during instrumental portions of some songs. The only point at which that gap was closed came courtesy of the final song of the night “We Carry On”, where during an extended outro she hopped off the stage and met the crowd at the barricade. It wasn’t quite crowd surfing, but the mental and physical breakdown of that wall seemed to be cathartic for everybody involved. Once that genie was let out of the bottle, there was no going back, which is probably why the band exited and the house lights came up immediately afterwards.

Choosing highlights from Portishead’s set is tough when everything they did was nothing short of excellent. Well except for the first half of “Mysterons”, where a malfunctioning speaker proved to be quite the annoyance. The extreme crackling was met with sheer disdain by the crowd, most of who began to shout in protest as it continued on for much of the song. Whether the bum speaker(s) was shut off or adjusted, a full recovery was eventually made, though the band either failed to notice or simply ignored it and continued to power through as if nothing had happened. Other than that, things went swimmingly. Essentials such as “Sour Times” and “Glory Box” remained vital and disturbing. Certainly one of the high, if not the highest point of the night came mid-set with “Wandering Star”. Reducing the band down to the core of Gibbons, Barrow and Utley, they radically reworked the track into an organic and slower-moving ballad rather than the eerie, electro-glitched toe-tapper classic. Gibbons’ vocal quivered through most of it as well, only adding to the quiet vulnerability of the song and keeping the crowd at full attention. It was an utterly fascinating choice to make, and one that proved just how immensely stimulating the band can be even when they break from their trademark sound.

In 90 minutes flat, Portishead was done. Over a decade of absence magically erased and bonds restored. Calling their influence drug-like is probably apt in this case. It was fascinating to see the sorts of people that turned out at the show, from a fresh generation of younger fans to a decidedly older crowd – most assuredly fans from the earlier period of their 20+ years together as a band. People with mohawks and people with comb overs may not have much in common, but the one thing they could all agree on Wednesday night was that Portishead put on one of the best shows of 2011 so far. If absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, here’s one band that’s playing their cards just right. Still, we can all hold out hope they don’t make us wait another 12 years before showing their faces in Chicago again.

Set List
The Rip
Sour Times
Magic Doors
Wandering Star
Machine Gun
Glory Box
Chase the Tear
We Carry On