Report: Tortoise Live in Northampton


Windy City boys come breezing into Northampton’s Iron Horse on September 6, part
rocket science and part just plain rock.


Photos & text by Jennifer Kelly


Tortoise — the five-person, instrument-switching,
jazz-rock-fusion band out of Chicago
that single-handedly launched post-rock — has just kicked “High Class Slim
Came Floatin’ In” up a notch. Two drummers, Dan Bitney and John Herndon face
off on kits set back to back, playing syncopated rhythms that move in and out
of phase with each other, now an identical beat doubled, now two intersecting
cadences that fill in each other’s spaces and dot each other’s “I”s. John
McEntire is up on the multiple-tiered keyboard synth set, while Doug McCombs
settles into a groove in the back. For now, guitar-bass-keyboard player Jeff
Lewis is picking out a melody on a keyboard in the back, but don’t get too
comfortable. When the song’s over, everyone will change places. It would be
remarkable if the band’s five members were this good on #one# instrument. Instead, they’re adept at three or four.


Before Tortoise, openers Ben Vida and Greg Davis led the
audience through a fascinating display of electronic experimentation, all three
principals (not sure who the third guy was) hunched over circuit boards massed
with wires and adorned with red, green, blue and yellow flashing lights. To
play them, they constantly plugged and unplugged wires into various holes,
turned dials and flicked switches. It was hard to say who was doing what,
really, until the sound thinned out and you saw that Greg Davis was creating
the deep pounding sound, Vida adding higher, blippier accents overtop. The
sound was rhythmic, machine like, sometimes grindingly heavy, others playful,
syncopated and lighter. We got there in the middle of what appeared to be one
long improvisation, and as the mechanical sounds died down, it was time for


Tortoise is still touring 2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship, and leading off “High Class Slim”, they turn to
the very different, very lyrical “Charteroak Foundation,” with Lewis spinning
out serene runs of notes on his guitar over a hard, cymbal-heavy beat. Talking
to Bitney last year, he said he thought the new material better reflected their
rougher, grittier live presence than previous albums. And, in fact, in the live
setting, Tortoise’s music turns surprisingly visceral, physical even, despite
its obvious complexity. Bodies are moving, more or less in time with Tortoise’s
difficult rhythms. During one cut, I start counting to try to figure out what
time signature the band is working in and end up with a tentative 8/9. Yet
though the beat is non-linear and, indeed, almost disorientingly off the
four-square, you can’t help trying to dance to it.





Piles of gear are crowded onto the small stage – guitars,
drum sets, basses, keyboards, xylophones – and space is so tight that one large
vibraphone-ish instrument has been set down in the space just to the right of
the stage. When Herndon goes to play it, no one can hear him. You can see Lewis
and McCombs shaking their heads, and Herndon whacking the bars with ever more
force. Finally, during the break, they ask for more vibe in the monitor. “It
just sounds like the Ramones without it,” someone says.


Ramones?  Not really. But
it does sound way more propulsive and rock than you might expect, if you’ve cut
your teeth on Tortoise’s earlier, more tranquil materials. “Yinxianghechengqi”
from the newest record, explodes off the stage, in a driving, distorted haze. “I
Set My Face to the Hillside” from TNT is more subdued, though still
rhythmic, paced by Latin-sounding shaken percussion. There’s a groove going on
here, people on stage thumping bass lines and slapping tambourines and, in a
cerebral, many-years-of-training kind of way, letting loose.


You might think, from the records, that seeing Tortoise live
would be good for you, interesting, intellectually absorbing, a difficult
pleasure. They are, but they’re also a great, fun rock band, even if they do
play in time signatures invented by rocket scientists.



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