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You can tell a gig is going to be blinding when the audience counts the band in from ten down to one, the band locates the imaginary zero and sits on it with its first note, and music and audience become a single sonic explosion…
But, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Tortoise wasn’t on fire enough to run with the crowd’s enthusiasm and left it sitting on one, like a lover whose partner has climbed out of bed too soon. A tiredness pervaded Tortoise’s craft tonight, despite the best and most competent efforts of its members, and the hefty rhythms of the album Standards, which provided most of the set.
Maybe the band tried to do too much. The ’Looking for a thrill’ all-dayer, a tenth birthday bash for Chicago’s electronica-toting label Thrill Jockey, included five Tortoise-affiliated bands and saw bassist Doug McComb play no less than four separate sets. He must have been exhausted, though he managed to jig and grin his way through the gig.
Lost countdown notwithstanding, the set started out well, with hip-swayer Seneca scratching its way through breaks in rhythm, and an early highlight provided by TNT-favourite ‘In Sarah, Menshen, Christ & Beethoven there were women and men.’ But before long the guys behind me are striking up an insistent moan. “Sounds a bit stuck in the mudd-y.” “Aye. Maybe it’s just us, though?” while the duelling bass pumps its way through ‘Eros’.
Tortoise in slightly jaded mode is still an awesome spectacle. For all the post-rock jazzcore labelling that follows the band around, what makes it possible to stick a complex instrumental outfit and its unkempt confusion of equipment in front of a packed house of twenty-somethings is that this is music you can dance to.
Sod jazz. Most of the tracks have a strong Latin meets rock core, and when they slip into 5/4 or 9/8 time you can still locate a pivot for your hips to move around. The only time this falls apart is in the apparently freeform break of the last song, when only the guy on disco biscuits in front of me manages to locate a frazzled cosmic box-making groove among the maelstrom. The rest of us just stand and stare with arms folded, amazed that the band can come back to the melody on time, amazed too that they haven’t ended with something from TNT or played anything at all from Millions.
The encore rectified that, opening with the insistent popsicle whistle of TNT’s ‘Ten-day Interval’. The crowd throws up a yelp of recognition, and the song shifts from its early hi-hat underpinning (which, by the way, sent shivers up my companion’s spine), back to Braz-beat, before segueing into rocking drums and rolling bass, which see jazzman Jeff Parker‘s guitar off over the wire again. It’s the highlight of the show for me.
But if I’m not quite as excited as my gig-mate, it’s probably because second headliners Trans Am have left the stage. It’s not often I mourn the passing of a band’s set, but these Stereolab meets Krautrock guys have really got to me. I can’t believe they’re not coming back.
There is something utterly captivating about the symmetry of the visual and the aural show. Two drum kits for the opening tracks, and two guys framing the drumkits at stage front, both dressed in white, both playing keyboard, bass, or guitar, often playing the same instrument, usually forging some sort of droning constancy, a launch pad for the drums’ firework display.
Even when they burst into song, the synthed-up vocal lines support the droning rhythm, inverting the usual backline arrangement, so that drums have pride of place. All the while, the light show bathes the stage in purple and pink, or green and blue, like a scene from Independence Day, but happy.
From the opening track with its elasticated backbeat, and the spaceship’s-about-to-take-you-captive air that follows it, though the false sense of rhythmic security and sudden accent changes, through the tangerine loop of the most lonesome steel guitar I’ve ever heard, through the trrrrrd-drrrt-drrrt-doca-docun-dun rotor toms, and almost hymnal vocals-cum-keyboard line, I am absolutely theirs. When drummer Sebastian plays his kit with his cymbals on fire (literally) at the end of the set I think I might expire. If you have even a corpuscle of Kraut in your heart, you must see this band.
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