Review: Placebo at Portsmouth Guildhall, November 18

Review: Placebo at Portsmouth Guildhall, November 18

by  Joy Richardson.

In 1996 Placebo (vocalist/guitarist Brian Molko and bassist/guitarist Stefan Olsdal) hit the indie music scene with the release of  their self-titled debut album and tour of the usual venues for the up and coming. There was a real buzz surrounding this band; the major scene at the time was BritPop and whilst Placebo certainly stemmed from that world they had an edgier sound with influences of New Wave and Bowie evident. Their music great but it was arguably Molko who made them stand out from their peers. His lyrics spoke about sexuality, he had an androgynous beauty enhanced by a sense of style unconstrained by gender and was openly bisexual. It may sound strange today but for teenagers who had been educated during Thatcher’s Section 28 legislation (which banned any discussion of sexuality in schools) this was mind-blowing. I distinctly remember learning the word bisexual in an interview with Molko in (I think) Kerrang as an 18 year old, this new lexicon was transformative to many fans.

Placebo were exciting and outspoken, they made identity and representation political to a previously shielded generation and were the perfect foil to the culture of laddism. The band have since had an internationally successful career receiving several awards and were now touring their eighth studio album, I was excited to see how Molko and Olsdall now (like me) in their late 40s would bring that legacy to Portsmouth Guildhall. 

The evening started with support from all-girl three piece Cruel Hearts Club comprising of sisters Edie (lead vocals/guitar) and Gita Langley (vocals/bass) with Gaby Woo on drums. Their aesthetic instantly took me back to 1996. Edie was sporting a tartan mini skirt, stomping boots and space buns whilst Gita was wearing one of their own merch t-shirts teamed with white stiletto over-the-knee boots Nancy Sinatra would have been proud of. Gaby wore a cheerleaders dress with What Ever emblazoned across it in sequins and which (I later learnt) had originally been made for Alesha Dixon. They had the sound to match, it was punky, grungey fun. All three are classically trained musicians but they have manged to find the right balance of musical proficiency and rocking-out raw. Gaby’s beats were tight, powering each song alongside Gita’s heavy durgey basslines a perfect contrast to Edie’s sweet yet strong vocals. I bought the t-shirt which is always a great barometer of how much I enjoyed an act. 

Would Placebo make me feel equally nostalgic I wondered? In one way yes, as the band “kindly asked” that mobile phones were not used for photos and videos. This wasn’t just a polite request but was enforced by security. They stated that people using their phones “makes Placebo’s performance so much more difficult… to connect with [the audience] and to communicate effectively the emotions of the songs.” The set design was really interesting with the stage being completely opened up removing the wings so not only were the duo joined on stage by their four supporting musicians playing a mixture of drums, keyboards (x2), guitar, bass (x2) and violin but also technicians, sound engineers and cable wranglers. I really appreciated how this included more of the wider team in ‘the band’. The rest of the staging consisted of bespoke lighting and a series of live rear projections of the performance which had been through a filter reminiscent of their glitch logo. Molko and Olsdall both wore plain tight black jeans and tops which, whilst lacking the flamboyance of their earlier career, completed the expertly designed set leaving them to dominate the stage against the multicoloured and constantly moving lighting and video. 

The set was around two hours in length and unsurprisingly, for the Never Let Me Go Tour, focused on tracks from their recently released album. Whilst not my favourite from their discography this sounded incredible live. The studio seemed to have sapped the energy and hearing it performed in person just zapped it all back. This was supplemented with older material from Sleeping with Ghosts, Loud Like Love, Meds and the huge crowd pleaser Bionic from their first album. Nancy Boy, their breakthrough hit, was noticeably absent but maybe they are bored of playing it after 26 years. A white mini grand piano was wheeled on stage half way through for Olsdall to perform Too Many Friends and it was Olsdall who really led the evening. Despite the band’s statement about their need to connect with the audience there was very little engagement, a few words or gesturing to lead the crowd into a wave or clap.

Molko only addressed the crowd once, close to the end, to say he had been nervous about the gig because of the intimacy of the venue. Possibly because of this or their tour history and combined with the stage setting it felt very much more of an arena style concert rather than the less heavily produced gigs usually seen at Portsmouth Guildhall. However the performances were all excellent and it really looked like everyone performing stage was having a good time. The set finished with Infra-Red to huge cheers and, as the crowd demanded, the band returned with an encore choosing a cover of Tears For Fears’ Shout, Fix Yourself and their 2003 cover of the recently re-popularised Running Up That Hill. Finally the evening ended with the duo smiling and hugging centre stage whilst the audience whooped and applauded. Everyone was happy and had had a great night. 

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