—Tara Simmons with Chris O’Neill and band covering Portishead’s “Dummy” album @ The Powerhouse.
Why a drummer can’t cover Portishead singlehandedly, and how cool it is when he can
As you can probably tell from this site I’m a great fan of Chris O’Neill’s drumming, but when I heard he planned to take on the whole of Portishead’s “Dummy” album live my only thought was “Impossible”.
The thing about covering fast, complex, technically difficult drumming is the audience will be wowed even if you miss a few hits. With alien-sounding atmospheric music, even if the beat is simple, there is nowhere to hide. You either capture that elusive and contrary mood, or you don’t.
First of all, Portishead play live with two drummers. And not just any two drummers but Geoff Barrow, master of experimental electronic soundscapes, and Clive Deamer, last seen on tour with Radiohead. I dug up the notes I’d scribbled excitedly after Portishead’s live show and the more I read, the more impossible it seemed.
I’d been fortunate enough to see Portishead headline the Harvest festival in 2011, at the Riverstage just as twilight descended over Brisbane. Magical though the whole performance was, Geoff and Clive’s drumming and the way they interacted put this show in a league of its own.
We’ve all seen bands double up on drum kits, but the second guy is usually there to fatten or embellish the main drum part. Sort of the way an orchestra uses the 1st and 2nd violins - even though you hear different nuances it all sounds basically like violins. But Portishead’s drummers were so different from each other in tone and texture that they appeared as two separate themes. For me it was more like hearing a cello contrasted against a flute.
On one track the left kit sounded disciplined, almost militant, with the right kit ragged and whispery. Next track the left kit produced weird metallic or electronic noises while the right played like cracking on wood. Then the sharp definition of sticks was outlined against the quiet thunder of mallets. These counterpoints created an awesome sense of tension between the two kits. I felt each drummer gave a different side of the story: the neat disciplined voice of the mind and the spacier, wilder voice of the emotions.
The tones and textures themselves are extraordinary. Portishead offset their ethereal vocals with tortured and unusual drum sounds. Crunchy, rattly, crackling sounds. Not easy to blend into the music without jarring, especially when you throw cymbals in the mix. Much harder to pull off than sweet tones. And the snare is unique. Rattly yet refined, rustic yet with a sense of otherworldliness. If you wanted to create the sound of Catherine’s ghost rattling the windowpanes of Heathcliffe’s house you’d be asking Geoff Barrow to do it.
So how can a solo drummer pull all this off? Ok, maybe you can reproduce some of those weird alien sounds, but what about creating that tense elemental mood? It’s like a movie where the actor plays not only some unique quixotic character … but also his evil twin brother.
It’s the first time I’d come to one of Chris O’Neill’s gigs wondering “Er, is this actually going to work?” It’s also the first time I’d turned up with an actual list of what I wanted to hear. I’d decided if he could deliver half the things on it he’s a genius.
But he nailed them all. It was brilliant. Somehow Chris balanced the two themes and made a perfect blend out of alien elements. No two tracks sounded the same (and that was so important), the flavours were satisfyingly distinct. Two tracks had no drums at all - an authentically Portishead-like contrast.
The kit featured two snares, kick drums, and hi-hats, electronically enhanced of course. He used contrasting tones at crucial points of each song, so the sense of two drum kits made itself felt without crowding or confusion. The dual personalities were both there; one knocking inexorably on a door, the other rattling nervously at a windowpane.
The drums moved from cracking to gentle, from warm to metallic. Everything was delivered with Portishead’s trademark stern sombreness, as though the mark of Fate is stamped heavily on every song. The highlight was the honey-sweet drum tones on ‘Wandering star’ - exquisite in the Powerhouse’s high-vaulted space. ‘Glory Box’ was a brilliant finish and a perfect fit for Tara’s beautiful voice. Portishead would be immensely proud, guys.