Juxtaposition of cultures
Portico Quartet - Live At York Hall, London

It’s not often a music concert is held in a sports centre, but that is precisely what is happening tonight as the York Hall in Bethnal Green, a venue primarily known for staging boxing, plays host to 21st century jazz darlings Portico Quartet. As two classic East End bouncers steer the throngs of hipsters towards the music hall one is struck by the juxtaposition of cultures and surroundings.

Strangely it all seems very fitting for a band whose career to date has not exactly followed the usual course of things. Nominated for the Mercury Music Prize with their 2008 debut ‘Knee Deep in the North Sea’, the flicker of mainstream exposure that followed has long since departed. Tonight, however, the expectant atmosphere amongst the mobile screen lit audience signifies a band whose star is on the rise.

The curiousness continues as the band enters to restrained applause and spends the first minute onstage arranging themselves to the hushed chatter of the crowd. Everything is done in a manner more akin to a concert orchestra than the now predictable convention of the striding-on-confidently-to-intro-music-and-bombing-straight-into-the-opener routine of most acts.

And then the music starts and it all becomes clear. Looped arpeggios are laced over soothing bowed and plucked double bass lines, which in turn are complemented by a gentle sax drawl. The Hang (the band’s signature instrument) generates soft resonating overtones, which complete a tranquil yet brooding sound. One is immediately struck with how deliberate and considered everything is and the result is something rather glorious.

Playing the majority of their eponymously titled and fetal new album tonight, it is soon obvious that we are witnessing the birth of a new sound resulting from a journey towards an altogether more sonic destination than previous. The jazz has been replaced with a clicky ambience more often associated with the digitally programmed forays of artists such as DJ Shadow, Burial, Gold Panda and even early ‘00s era Radiohead. On its own this is nothing new, but it is in the construction and live realisation that one appreciates just what these four East London musicians are actually doing and why this part of the capital is taking such notice.

Drummer Duncan Bellamy delicately fingertaps a drum pad crafting a range of digitally synthesised sounds, which he seamlessly integrates with acoustic skins and cymbals. Every accent and harmony of his performance is captured and expressed and the result is emotive and quite simply awe-inspiring.

It is noteworthy though that this is not a live experience for those who prefer to move and groove. The finger tapped electronic percussion and subtle feedback and distortion created by the acoustics of the classical instruments produces an earthy hue that is more agitation than excitation. The crowd is mesmerised in thoughtful comprehension with only the faint nodding heads exposing the deep personal connection being felt by each individual. This is reflective music and definitively food for the mind rather than the body.

The set draws to a close with the introduction of supporting vocalist ‘Cornelia’ for the only choral track of the night ‘Steepless’. As she softly declares “love is all around, you won’t find the answers underground” the appreciative audience gives recognition for what they have witnessed and in that one lyric the experience of the evening is revealed to the full.

Portico Quartet is a band striding out from the underground on their terms, and the admiration awaiting them is there for all to see.

Words by Chris Wash
Photo by Will Bunce

Click here for a photo gallery of the gig.

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