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Portico Quartet: Montreal, Canada, October 2, 2010

John Kelman By

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When we played Philadelphia, there was a guy with his wife, who had seen us busking in London, and now they're back here, and saw us, which was cool. It's really fond memories: happy days, DIY days,
Portico Quartet
L'Astral
Montreal, Canada
October 2, 2010

It's a tough slog for a European band to break into the North American market. High work visa costs, expensive travel between cities distanced by hundreds—if not thousands—of miles add logistical nightmares to the fact that the North American market is so flooded with new music that you've got to be special to have even a small hope of rising above it all to be heard. Fortunately, UK's Portico Quartet has something special—a number of things special, in fact. And a near-capacity house at Montreal's L'Astral got the opportunity to find out just how special Portico Quartet was, during two sets at the end of a seven-date tour that brought the group to North America for the first time.

"It's certainly been enlightening and eye opening," said drummer Duncan Bellamy, during the group's sound check the afternoon of October 2, 2010. "It's been great to come to the States and Canada to do these dates, but the first few gigs were really hard. We started in New York, with a couple days off, and that was lot of fun, but then we went to Iowa—nothing against Iowa—but it was kind of strange, staying in motels on the side of highways; it's a bit bleak, really. There were some days where we were just killing time. But the gigs we've had in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were really cool. On the whole, the audiences have liked what we're doing, but they seemed pretty baffled in Cedar Rapids [Iowa], though they [the organizers] were really nice guys."

It's no surprise that an audience of largely 60-plus year-olds in Cedar Rapids would have a hard time with Portico, despite the group playing music that's inherently approachable, its distinctive sound revolving around Nick Mulvey's unusual setup of three hangs—an instrument created by two Swiss sculptors that, designed primarily for use in spiritual/meditative pursuits, is being used almost contrary to its inventors' wishes by the group. So much so, in fact, that it's become a bit of a struggle for the group to obtain the instrument in desired custom tunings, as the hang's creators have become a touch resistant to the way Portico is using their invention. Sounding something like a cross between steel pan drums, gongs, gamelans and other tuned metal percussion instruments, Mulvey currently uses two hangs with its eight indentations tuned the same (a C-Minor chord) and a third tuned to D-Major. It was remarkable, watching Mulvey navigate these three flying saucer-shaped instruments, especially, at times, with four mallets; vibraphonists like Gary Burton, Joe Locke and Mike Mainieri are impressive enough, but their instrument is flat, and in a straight line; here, Mulvey has to navigate with almost superhuman dexterity, to play three hangs where the notes are in a circle, around the circumference of the instrument.

Portico's star has been on the ascendancy for the past couple years, first with its 2007 Babel debut, Knee Deep in the North Sea. but even more so with 2009's Isla, released on Peter Gabriel's Real World label and nominated for the UK's prestigious Mercury Prize. Now, with Isla seeing North American release (with a bonus track) and Knee Deep, now also on Real World, not far behind, the group is methodically pushing its boundaries—both geographically and musically. While saxophonist Jack Wyllie has been utilizing electronics since the group's inception, both Bellamy and bassist Milo Fitzpatrick are now incorporating processing as well, with the drummer actually taking a line from Wyllie—not unlike live sampler Jan Bang, of Punkt Festival fame—and feeding it, along with his own kit, through the use of contact microphones, into a computer to give Portico a broader sonic palette than ever before.

Nick Mulvey

But it's a relatively recent development. "I started sampling [Wyllie's] sax in the spring of this year [2010], during our UK tour," said Bellamy. "I tried having a drum pad to trigger MIDI stuff with a laptop, but initially it just wasn't that good, because I couldn't improvise that much with it—or maybe I just didn't know the software. But what appeals to me is having the idea of contact mikes to grab real sounds."

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