Thursday, 1 October 2009

TORTOISE @ The Firebird StL 09-29-09

As a music journalist, seeing hundreds of shows, speaking with hundreds of music celebrities, I'm always amazed that I'm still able to be impressed by musicians. It doesn't happen as much as it used to, as the "adult" critic in me has been conditioned to be jaded and skeptical by the "cool kids" in the biz. Bump that though, I can't help it: Much of the time I'm as sparkley-eyed and grinney as the 16-year-olds crowding the stage, flailing their "MINOR" hand stamps high. I'm a total dork, and I'm okay with that. Especially when it comes to a band of the caliber of Tortoise.
Maybe they're called Tortoise because they tour about as often as Giant Tortoises mate. It's been about five years since the last album release, and the fans were clearly hungry for a little turtle soup. For a Tuesday night at the Firebird in St. Louis, the turnout filled half the venue, which was more than I could say for any band or artist I'd ever seen in the place on a week night. The turnout always surprises me in this place because it is, in my opinion, one of the best rock venues in all of St. Louis. Then again, the place isn't exactly advertising itself from the road (it's about as conspicuous as an ant's ear), but anyway, I digress.
For those who haven't heard Tortoise, they are a five-member experimental group that hails from Chicago. The group uses a variety of organic instruments and also electronic toys to create its vast wealth of sounds. Each member of the group comes from some other project, and somehow they all seem to piece themselves together in a way that creates a multi-layered symbiosis. Instead of egos clashing, I guess that somehow they've learned to work with each person's individual talents in a way that, for most bands, is a veritable impossibility.
The stage at the Firebird held a wealth of instruments: Bass guitars, regular electric babies, two drum kits, a fantasy-inducing Moog synth, keyboards, an electronic marimba and a xylophone. As the band took tot he stage, the disjointed lot of instruments all came to life and each element had its turn in the spotlight.
Jeff Parker's wicked guitar fingers send melodic waves cascading like an avalanche over the opening track. His jaw clenches and a hard grin of concentration flashes in and out as his lips draw back in time with the unrelenting rhythm.
In whomps the drum kit. Not one of them, two. It comes as a pleasant surprise that Dan Bitney, not usually known for his percussion, takes up the sticks for a flashy and syncopated drum duet with John Herndon. McCombs, the bassist, takes up the keys, and that turns everything we thought about Tortoise right on its head. And that is awesome.
The dizzy rockadelic frolic is brought on by a banquet of electronics (having never seen an electronic marimba, I was quite intrigued by its light-up action). Bitney and Herndon take up that and the xylophone in another duet. Herndon at one point scratches at the xylophone with the sticks like a cave man carving bones, then flips them right-side and flows right into a gorgeously bone-melting ditty on the metal. All the while, John McIntire dabbles the keys and tosses in robotic noise and "fun" stuff like dimestore beads at a Mardi Gras parade.
Somehow with Tortoise, tacky is tasteful. That 70s cop-show, slouchy polyester vibe suddenly feels like it's en vogue; it just feels right on your skin. A guy in the crowd told me that he could "feel the music in [his] pants." If that isn't rock-tastic, I don't know what is.
I'd like to say that I was fully music-critic sharp and "with it" during this show, that my brain was actively analyzing the elements 100 percent of the time, but if I said that I would be lying. I did get a little bit lost in the music for a while. The psychedelic elements whisked my brain off to another place for a few minutes before I realized what was happening. Listening to Tortoise is like hearing interpreted into music every dream you ever had--or every dream you wish that you ever had.
John Herndon really snapped me back to reality with his incredible guttural drumming. After a good hour of drumming, I imagine anyone would be exhausted, but Herndon, sweat flowing off of his nose like a mini-waterfall, took it to the next level, hitting harder and faster. Whipping the music into a froth, he brought the backbeat to the foreground. I haven't seen dedication like that in years. Hats off, buddy.
All the rock, wonk and jazz add up to a fantastic mystery flavor. As always, Tortoise delivers a rare treat.

(Photos by Harold Coin)

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