Saturday, December 3
What a treat to see Tortoise – finally. (I missed their previous show – one of those ones, many years ago now, but people still reference it). The Chicago quintet has been making its post-rock, essentially genre-less amalgams of jazz-meets-indie-via-minimalism-and-now-synth-pop for a quarter century. Slowly, but surely the sound has evolved – each album resonant with its own flavours, be they dub or Spaghetti Western soundtracks, their latest, The Catastrophist, a highlight in their discography, has synths and Krautrock rhythms and some cameo vocal cuts.
No vocals for the live show though, and no surprise there – but plenty of material from The Catastrophist, and from this upper end of the Tortoise catalogue. With a few sprinklings from the earlier albums too.
It’s a hypnotic, subtly wondrous set – two drum kits facing each other are locked in at the front of stage. Two vibraphones, one organic, one midi and a bass player who’ll switch for guitar, a guitarist who’ll also add bass and a revolving door of drummers; this one band features not just a great drummer, not just two – one per kit – but three fantastic players, making the rhythm the focus, particularly when two drummers would create one master-rhythm out of two separate sets of drum-vestiges.
Hints of jazz guitar – as always, big proud echoes of dub, splashes of colour from across the sonic spectrum as Morricone’s film scores were blended with the moods and movements of Steve Reich one minute, the post-rock intensity of almost every band that feels an obvious debt to Tortoise hangs heavy too.
Watching them live the debt of influence Wilco owes seemed strangely profound. Maybe it was in the dad-rock nods the players gave to one another as they roundtabled and spitballed through the most complex passages with an aw-shucks silent confidence and shoulder-shrugging that bordered on nonchalance. But I could hear so much of Wilco’s “experimental” template, what they picked up from Tortoise I mean, in this performance from one of the most influential musical forces across the last two and a half decades.
Two encores – and just enough banter to include a pretty funny joke (“a tortoise walks into a bar, the barman says ‘we have a band playing here tonight named after you’, the tortoise goes: ‘really, you have a band here tonight called Steve?’”) showed the shoulder-shrugging and aw-shucksness is (partly) for show. These guys loved it here. And a crowd mixed with die-hards and first-timers made them feel welcome, gave just enough energy back, swaying to the supple rhythms, caught in the world of fuzzy keys, percussive vibes and circus-jazz guitar licks.
One of the best shows of the year. Everything a Tortoise gig in 2016 could be. If you heard this band in 2004 or 2009 or 1995 you heard a different version of the band, despite the line-up remaining consistent. That’s just how they roll. Amazing players. And it was a thrill to see them put those years of dogmatic approach into action.