NOISE: Winning Tortoise

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Guardian contributor Chris Sabbath weighs in on the recent Tortoise show on Sept. 14 at Great American Music Hall:

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Being a late bloomer in the whole Chicago post-rock department, I didn’t actually get around to hearing Tortoise’s eclectic jazz-prog-electronic post-whatevers until my early 20s. That being said, I went Thrill Jockey crazy for a summer -- endlessly stockpiling my college apartment with albums by such label staples as Mouse on Mars, Trains Am, and Oval. Wharves -- I’m over it now, but fast-forward six years later, and I still hadn't seen the Windy City quartet in the flesh. From what I could remember, they had only breezed through my Cleveland, Ohio, hometown once, and instead of venturing to their show, I chose to spend the day bonding with my ex-girlfriend. Wish I would have chose the former, because I ended up lost in the ghetto, fighting with my ex, while my friends were having the time of their lives. (One friend went on to comment: “Dude, a haunting performance, dude. The best show I’ve seen in years.”) So to make up for bad arguments and stupid decisions, I was pretty stoked when I found out that I was going to be able to finally see the band when they came to the Bay Area last week.

My date and I ended up waiting outside in the will-call line for what seemed like an hour (nothing is more alluring then being entertained by the homeless and musically inept). Anywho, I began to panic when we finally reached the doors and I recognized the song echoing throughout the Great American Music Hall as “Swung from the Gutters” (one of my favorite Tortoise songs) off 1998’s landmark TNT album. Playing it cool, I casually asked my date where she would like to sit, and of course, she chose the highest portion of the building, behind the lighting designer, something I initially frowned upon (I like to be in the shit of sweaty bodies and spilled beer). But in actuality, it turned out to be a great viewing area, and I could see perfectly throughout the duration of the show.

After “Gutters” went through the motions with post-jazz, electronic gurgling, I was treated to a harmonious barrage of great songs from each of the group’s albums. The show ended up being the best I have seen this year. Having not bought an album by Tortoise in the past couple of years, I was a tad bit worried that the band would be playing all new songs that I wouldn’t recognize. Not the case. They relentlessly played all the hits. Every song that I would ever want to hear Tortoise play live ripped through the crowd -- all bases were covered. Some of the highlights were “Glass Museum” off Millions Now Living Will Never Die, “It’s All Around You” from the album of the same name, and their first encore performance of “Seneca” off Standards.

I was very surprised that I recognized most of the songs that the band was playing. Tortoise released an album of covers with Bonnie “Prince” Billy earlier this year, in addition to a box set of rare material. There was a song or two that stuck out as not being memorable, but much to the crowd’s delight, as well as mine, the band kept dishing out the good stuff. John McEntire and company seemed to very relaxed on stage too, repeatedly switching up the instruments between members. I thought the use of two drum sets was very effective. What they lacked in stellar studio production, live, (their fluctuating tempos are obviously electronic based) was made up for with hard-hitting drumming -- ultimately taking the music to a new level. In addition to the crystal-clear tones and rich textures of the guitar and bass, the band seemed comfortable jamming on stage, adding a sense of ingenuity to already great songs. After two encores, the band called it a night and succeeded in making an impression on me, amid my somewhat drunken daze -- I will definitely go see this band the next time the opportunity arises. And so should you.