Beth Gibbons review – an unapologetically intense triumph

Eyes shut, feet bare, with the stage in virtual darkness, singer Beth Gibbons clings to her microphone stand as though to a sapling in a gale, a veil of blond hair periodically falling across her face. It’s a pose every bit as era-defining as the microphone stance of fellow 1994 alumnus Liam Gallagher. Oasis’s Definitely Maybe and Portishead’s Dummy both came out that year, the latter introducing Gibbons’s otherworldly, jazz-inflected voice.

Tonight, Gibbons’s instrument, flawless against the march of time, hovers over a backdrop of groans, drones and keening melodies coming from seven players backlit by a succession of dark reds and blues. Often, Gibbons turns away from the mic, as though unable to face the words she has just sung.

The good news is that this debut solo tour is a racked triumph, a thrum of folk, modern classical and jazz textures brought into pin-sharp definition by the concert hall acoustics. And some expert mixing: Gibbons’s singular voice, pristine in its higher register, swooping in its huskier tones, is never drowned out by the clattering percussion, or the uneasy keening of the catgut.

Her band are quietly stellar, too. On drums is producer James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Depeche Mode, Blur). On bass, which he sometimes bows, is storied jazz professor Tom Herbert, while percussionist Howard Jacobs plays additional baritone sax and a musical saw. At one point, the three players across the back all whip whirly tubes around to create a sonic wind. Keys player Jason Hazeley contributes a mostly humming analogue palette that crystallises into piano lines.

Both this short set of dates – and her new album Lives Outgrown – are extra-special because of Gibbons’s bitty and sporadic engagement with the limelight since Portishead’s heyday; the band last toured a decade ago before reuniting briefly for a Ukraine benefit in 2022. Recently, Gibbons has sung Górecki with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, guested on one of Kendrick Lamar’s most hard-hitting tracks, Mother I Sober, and covered Black Sabbath with fellow Bristolians Gonga (they renamed the song Black Sabbeth).

Her last record of original material – 2002’s Out of Season – was as a duo with Rustin’ Man, AKA Paul Webb, also of Talk Talk. The Out of Season song Mysteries nestles assonantly in tonight’s set, a relatively spare folk arrangement where Gibbons succeeds in finding some gentle succour “where war is no more”. In the encore, longtime fans are rewarded with a superb rendition of Portishead’s Roads, one of that magisterially sad band’s most bereft songs. “We got a war to fight,” sings Gibbons, “I got nobody on my side.”

The bad news is that Gibbons doesn’t have much good news to impart. She has been to the mountain. The view is not great.

‘She turns away from the mic, as though unable to face the words she has just sung.’ Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

If previously her voice combined sultriness and ache, now it elegantly examines losses, past, present and future like an oracle. Lives Outgrown reflects upon the unrelenting flow of time, of the inevitability of change and the understanding that, regardless, there are some things that cannot be fixed.

It’s an almighty wallow – but one where beauty is omnipresent, softening the bleakness of Gibbons’s dispatches. Among the loveliest tracks is Floating on a Moment, full of harpsichord and gaseous grace that ponders the great journey no one dodges, subverting cliche all the while. “All we have is here and now,” Gibbons concludes – a cappella at the end for emphasis – and you want to rush home and make amends with everyone you’ve ever wronged.

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Rewind is, perhaps, its opposite – a dark gallop in a minor key where whirly tubes and woodwind cast a more apocalyptic spell. The relentless churn of the band eventually ends in collapse, mirroring what will befall us. “The wild has no more to give,” mourns Gibbons, “Gone too far to rewind.” More a cappella, to drive the point home.

For Sale, a heavy folk song not a million miles from PJ Harvey, features what sound like bicycle bells while Lost Changes ends on men whistling – a little gaiety piercing the penumbral atmosphere now and again. Really, though, the pleasure of this gig lies in its unapologetic intensity.

Live performances can often reveal overlooked album cuts and so it is tonight, when the cinematic jazz melancholy of Out Of Season’s Tom The Model turns into Lives Outgrown’s Beyond The Sun. Gnashing over past choices, Gibbons’s voice cuts above the acoustic guitar and droning backdrop. “No relief can be found,” she wails. Gathering pace, the band, many of them on backing vocals, set up imperious “ba, ba, ba’s” against an overwhelm of eastern-tuned guitars, howling sax, tumbling drums, end-of-days strings and – ravishingly – Gibbons’ longest-held note.


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