Arts & EntertainmentMusicPop & Hiss

Amid the rolling, relentless rhythm, a message in 'Silence'

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Portishead, 2008.

I experienced Portishead, as with much of Coachella 2008, alone. As such, I remember a feeling of dread hanging over the masses that evening. In my emotional memory, as Portishead's crew set up its gear, the hum of laughter from groups of friends relaxing on the pitch, the sight of snuggling couples, were pierced by a certain tension. It was my first Coachella. I didn't have the wherewithal to cram myself into the crowd, so I stood well beyond the soundboard.

Six months earlier, I'd moved to Los Angeles and left behind a long-term girlfriend and a bounty of friends and family. I knew about five people in L.A. Despite a cool new job and living arrangement with a dear friend in Hancock Park, I was enduring some pretty serious Los Angeles isolation. I remember driving around alone a lot, getting lost in the hills, trying to figure out the city's geography while jamming at ridiculous volumes Felli Fel on Power 106, Garth Trinidad on KCRW and Henry Rollins on Indie 103.

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A few weeks before Portishead's gig, I'd gotten an advance of "Third," the group's first new music in more than a decade, and it had been soothing the doom. The band had somehow transcended the confines of the movement that it helped spearhead, known to the public at large as "trip hop," long since out of fashion, to create something fresh and essential. I'd been roaming L.A. a lot while absorbing it.

Portishead took the stage and the cameras focused a tight, close shot on the drummer's high-hat as the group drove into "Silence." With its rolling, relentless rhythm, the song starts fast and doesn't let up. As the musicians arrived at vocalist Beth Gibbons' first lyrics, a single spotlight highlighted her, and her fans erupted. The words hit my body like bullets: "Tempted in our minds/ Tormented inside lie/ Wounded and afraid/ Inside my head/ Falling through changes."

I closed my eyes so as to better focus on the sound. It was huge, and I was standing in the sweet spot: beyond the soundboard, perfectly balanced between left and right channels. Cameras focused on Gibbons grasping her microphone stand, shot to images of guitarist Adrian Utley's fingers squeezing out needled notes while driving, wobbly bass echoed across the plateau. Producer-percussionist Geoff Barrow beat mallets on tom-tom drums.

Within the rhythm was a secret message, one that felt crafted solely for my consumption. I'm pretty sure it wasn't — but not positive.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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