Things go in cycles that can be incredibly close. On the 28th September 2014 I first saw The Portraits when they organised a charity concert to raise money for, and awareness of , the Anthony Nolan/Delete Blood Cancer charities. On the 25th September 2015 I was at the launch of their album "Lions and Butterflies". What keeps me coming back? The Portraits write beautiful songs and although the subjects can deal with those who are not on the winning side of life there's always a message of hope, of the endurance of the human spirit. They are also beautiful people whose lives, and work, reflect the spirit within their songs. Going to see The Portraits is not just a case of turning up at a venue to listen, you enter into a community that's full of warmth and joy. You may not know all the people in the audience but you know you're amongst friends and that's why their latest album "For Our Times" launched to a sold out crowd. The Harrison is one of those intimate London venues where you're right there with the performers and you can appreciate every nuance of their show.
The Portaits are husband and wife team Jeremy (piano and vocals) and Lorraine (guitar and vocals) Millington, along with fiddle player Vincent Imbert, although as we will see there were some special guests later in the evening. They didn't, as may be expected, go straight in to the album. Instead they opened with a firm favourite "Moon Song". This is one Lorraine wrote when their son was a baby and, when holding him one night, she saw the moon reflecting in his eyes. Everyone knew it, everyone loves it and the evening was off to a flying start with the audience jigging and singing along.
After that it was straight in to "Fairy Lights", a song which sums up everything The Portraits stand for. It was written when Jeremy, looking down from his comfortable seat in an aeroplane flying over Africa, saw lights on the ground and wondered what they were. Were they cosy homes or perhaps the fires of refugee camps for people who had been forced out of their home? The Portraits are political writers but not in the strident "I'm right, you're wrong" sense. Their politics is about equality, of people having enough to satisfy their needs, but not more than they need, and not taking from those who have less or nothing. Equality extends to letting people be who they want to be, so there's a strong sense of tolerance and understanding. It is a great recipe for a better world and not beyond reach.
The first song from the album was "Skins" a song about South Africa, which they often visit, where equality is still proving difficult to achieve. There are still the rich and poor and the poor receive scant sympathy, with traces of apartheid still existing.
Another form of apartheid is reflected in "Wrong Kind of Love", which is a fairly self-explanatory title reflecting the prejudices we still see after all these years. From Lorraine's home country of Ireland comes another story of the wrong kind of love, this time of that outside marriage. It's the story, which has touched her own family, of unmarried mothers and what happened to both them and their children if the father didn't come back for them.
There are so many excellent songs on this album, all of them to be fair, that I could mention every one but this is a review of the night. As already seen it wasn't just a play of the new album with the familiar and well loved songs from the past getting an airing to the delight of everyone. I'm not sure The Portraits would be allowed to leave the building without playing "Small World Anthem", 14 years old now, but still sounding as fresh as a daisy and a favourite for a lot of people.
This mix worked so well with an audience who were all fans. We heard the new things we'd come to hear and could join in on plenty of occasions with the familiar. The mix also extends to the tempo of the songs. I was fortunate to get hold of the set list, which contains some useful information, so the songs ranged from 90 to 130 bpm. There were the quiet ones to listen to and the fast ones to move to. Being a Portraits album there was also the 'calypso style' song they do so well. On this one it's "Look At Me", driven along by Jeremy's light and punchy piano and Vincent's fiddle that compliment Lorraine's wonderfully expressive voice so well. If we weren't already standing we have been on our feet because this one is impossible to stay still to and it automatically brings a smile to the face.
Also mixing it up were the special guests, who added enormously to evening. First up was daughter Ciara who gave a good, confident performance on fiddle, which may not be a surprise from somebody who made their Glastonbury début aged 10. It was very assured playing in what was a big occasion, and she's somebody to look out for in the future. Also joining the band for the title track was Sam Jordan, a young flautist from their home town, who played on the album as well and sounded very good. "For Our Times" is another definitive song, based on the the concept of a music cassette. You may have tried to rewind it but it was almost impossible to get back to exactly where you wanted to stop. That idea is used as a metaphor to today where we seem to being going backwards in terms of relationships and politics.
Inevitably there was going to be an encore, we wouldn't have gone home otherwise, even though Lorraine was ready for her dinner by then. Starting with "Good Things" they went into "Trilby Man" which is about the travails of making it music but has one of those catch all choruses we can all relate to.
"Too young, too old, too hard, too soft to break away" and we sung it with gusto to finish yet another memorable evening in the company of a band who give so much joy and are - let's use the word - loved in a way very few other bands are.
It's very difficult for a standing audience to give a standing ovation but it was achieved on the night and thoroughly deserved. The Portraits have produced a beautiful album and we all left that night feeling better about ourselves and the world. There is, behind all the news, still a human spirit beating strong and speaking out.
The album is launched on 25th October but can be pre-ordered from their website now. It is highly recommended.
Tony Birch words and pics
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