Tortoise Doesn't Pander To Anyone But Tortoise
@Great American Music Hall
June 11, 2010
Better than: Not watching a genre-defying band you've idolized for over a decade.
Watching a band such as Chicago's jazz-influenced post-rock ensemble Tortoise perform live is completely unlike anything else in the indie music circuit. And it's not even that the performance itself is an explosion of audio/visual stimulation unparalleled by the most cutting-edge stage shows. What sets Tortoise so far apart from the quintet's fellow live bands is its attention to subtlety in both stage persona and musical delivery, unmatched instrumental skill, and outright defiance of conventional gig etiquette. When I caught my third Tortoise show last night at Great American Music Hall, it was like reuniting with an old friend; I knew exactly what to expect and couldn't be happier with their reliability.
Tortoise doesn't pander to anyone but Tortoise. When the band walks on stage, some member will politely say "hello," and then the band will get right to it. They aren't there to hype a new album, play to the crowd, or win over new fans. If you are at a Tortoise concert, it is because you've adored the music created by, more or less, the same five gentlemen on six genre-defining (and defying) albums over the course of 16-plus years. You're happy hearing whatever they see fit to perform, and the band plays accordingly.
For their show last night, the five multi-instrumentalists spread out their talents over two drum kits, a guitar, a bass, a synth, and two xylophones (one electronic and one acoustic) --recreating beloved songs from TNT, Standards, It's All Around You, and the group's most recent full-length, Beacons of Ancestorship. Songs like "Benway," "Salt the Skies," and "TNT" were played with delicate skill and grace, and each retained their own subtle moments of perfect harmony between relaxed jamming and tenacious musical precision. Tortoise played for over an hour and a half in the same way, and the crowd lapped up every bass groove, guitar noodle, and off-kilter rhythm served up.
The night's most memorable number was the first song Tortoise played during its encore, "Seneca." The Standards album opener kicks off with an explosion of distorted guitars, massive drum rolls, and bass rumblings, all sounding more like the beginning of a Jimi Hendrix live album than a song written by veteran jazz musicians. To aptly replicate the song's initial smash, drummer John Herndon grabbed one of the massive cymbals from its stand and hurled it at his kit before launching into the unhinged drum work of the two minute intro to "Seneca." It was the perfect dash of personality and attitude to punctuate a satisfying night of brilliant musicians performing classic tunes and fresh favorites to an adoring audience.
Personal Bias: While I couldn't have asked for anything more from Tortoise's live show, there did seem to be a dark cloud of tour drag looming above the five-piece. I caught slight grimaces from the musicians from time to time, which certainly were not jam-inspired "oh faces." At some points, there was a sense of the band just going through the motions rather than delivering a show directly inspired by the music gods. A friend I was chatting with mentioned the time he saw Tortoise play at a small bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, many years ago. He told me how overwhelming their sound was when crammed into the small space, and that it was a performance far more personal and intimate-feeling then the one we were currently experiencing. It made me wish for the old-school version of Tortoise, when they were younger, hungrier, and not packing hundreds of people into major music venues. I watched the rest of the show dreaming of Tortoise shows past, despite being wholly satisfied with the one I'd attended.
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