Tortoise, 29 May 2016, Feierwerk, Munich

20160529_212341For once, the recommendation for this gig did not come from Jools Holland, rather Stuart Maconie on BBC Radio 6 Music. Maconie choreographs an alternative music show on Sunday evenings. Quite a lot of it is “unlistenable” – as my partner reminds me often – but the nature of alternative music is that it is sometimes challenging. A few weeks ago Maconie highlighted the work of veteran musicians collectively known as Tortoise. Now, it is fair to say I’d never heard of them prior to an interview with a couple of the members  of the band; namely, Dan Bitney, most instruments; and John Herndon, percussion, keyboards. Maconie also played a couple of tracks from their most recent album, The Catastrophist (cover, below right).

So, what do we know of the band? They are a five-piece, “post rock” band. They have been together for 25 years and released 7 albums. They hail from Chicago. The three other members are Doug McCombs (guitars, percussion, stands at the back, mostly), John McEntire (percussion, electronic jiggery-pokery)  and Jeff Parker (guitar, bass, percussion). Post rock, in this context, seems to mean, jazz, progressive rock, electronics and a lot of percussion. It also means a bunch of musicians who have many simultaneous projects, some of which intersect with other members.

Before the band arrive on stage, one sees a curious array of instruments and order. For example, there are two drum kits both at the front. There is a xylophone and an electronic panel that also acts as a percussion instrument, itself hit with “mallets” (the latter is most evident on the track entitled Shake hands with danger). An array of guitars and three notional keyboards, one of which is connected to a compuTortoiseter enabling McEntire’s in-play jiggery-pokery. Suffice to say I have never been up so close to percussionists.

Of the music, I cannot really comment. I do not know the band’s music beyond this performance. And through their 100 minute set, we were spoken to twice. Once to say, Thank you for coming. And once to say, goodbye. The set was exclusively instrumental, so there were no lyrical clues. But it being the Catastrophist tour, I imagine most pieces were from the album. (I have subsequently bought the album and will listen carefully.) Don’t get me wrong, the lack of banter with the audience is not a reflection of some contempt for the audience (in a Bob Dylan way, for example). Rather, they are an intense band. The concentration is palpable. After the gig, I spoke to Herndon and there was not a gram of arrogance. He signed my CD simply with the word Thanks!

Venues are important. It is fair to say that Tortoise are unlikely to fill the Munich Philharmonie like Gregory Porter did a couple of weeks ago. But actually Feierwerk in Munich is that intimate venue that would have suited Porter. And this being a largely middle-aged audience, it was all very civilised and focused on the music. We were all being transported somewhere unexpected. This was impeccably orchestrated by five blokes who know each other very well. Extraordinarily, between each track there was a musical chairs – virtually all the musicians played all of the instruments.

The band play their final gig of this tour on 30 May in Frankfurt. They are back in Europe in July.

 

 

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1 comment so far

  1. Dave Lain on

    Thanks for the review. Tortoise are a great band. Stumbled upon them in the 1990s when I was at UEA. John McEntire is also in a band called The Sea and Cake, which is awesome.


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