All words and photos by Francis Chung.
After twenty years as one of independent music’s most important, inventive, and uncompromising groups, Tortoise remains a surprisingly underrated and underappreciated live band. The Black Cat was less than half-full for the Chicago-based quintet’s concert on Tuesday night, as many of the local cognoscenti who had eagerly packed the same space for the DC Record Fair apparently elected to stay away, some perhaps having exhausted their discretionary funds on Sunday’s vinyl purchases and daytime drinking. The loyal fans who did attend were amply rewarded, though, taking in a performance that was consistently brilliant and, during its best moments, nothing short of breathtaking.
After a loudly energetic (if comparatively one-dimensional) supporting set by garage-rockers Disappears, Tortoise began a ninety-minute set that showcased the unclassifiable breadth of its instrumental compositions, which evoke genres as diverse as free jazz, avant-garde classical, fusion, punk, prog rock, electronica, and hip-hop. To deliver such an expansive spectrum of sounds, the band had a considerable array of gear on stage, playing a carefully choreographed game of musical chairs with each member taking turns on multiple instruments. “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In,” for instance, featured John Herndon, John McEntire, and Jeff Parker comprising a chorus of keyboards and synthesizers anchored by Dan Bitney on drums and Doug McCombs on bass, whereas Parker and Bitney switched to electric guitars on “Minors,” with Herndon taking over the skins. Throughout the show, it was interesting to note the ways in which the band adapted and rearranged its intricately crafted studio recordings for a live context. Classic songs like “Swung From The Gutters” sounded slightly stripped-down, yet somehow retaining much of their sonic complexity, rendered with rougher textures and added rhythmic muscle.
While the first two-thirds of the concert was focused primarily on more ambient, mostly mid-tempo pieces that foregrounded the more “cerebral” elements of Tortoise’s music, the performance seemed to gain vigor and momentum as it went along, and the band saved some of its most electrifying tours de force for an extraordinary three-song sequence towards the end of the show. During “Dot/Eyes,” McEntire demonstrated why some rank him amongst the world’s preeminent percussionists, unleashing drum fills and cymbal crashes of startling speed and precision, and his beats dynamically propelled the cascading synth and guitar melodies of “Prepare Your Coffin,” probably the catchiest, most anthemic song of the evening. “Salt The Skies,” as is frequently the case, was a literal and figurative showstopper, climactically closing the main set as Parker’s scorching guitar riffs and Herndon’s shimmering vibraphones punctuated a tremendous, irresistible groove.
After that exhilarating flourish, the encores were almost inevitably a bit anticlimactic, though highlighted by a gorgeous rendition of “In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men,” and concluding with the Morricone-inflected ballad, “I Set My Face to the Hillside.” It was a quiet, slightly languid end to a performance that had been explosive at times, but Tortoise had already done plenty to once again reassert their formidable live chops, showing that “post-rock” can pack quite a visceral punch if delivered by the right hands.