We Love Music: Tortoise @ The Black Cat 2/16/10

courtesy of Tortoise

Indie-rock elder statesmen Tortoise played the Black Cat on Tuesday night and treated the modest-sized crowd to a set that was representative of their career modus operandi. Somehow their set managed to be simultaneously laid-back and intense in a way that was as mind-boggling as it was enjoyable. Covering the lion’s share of their latest album “Beacons Of Ancestorship” Tortoise once again displayed their utter mastery of genre collision and band member inter-play.

A lot of articles online hail Tortoise as the “godfathers of Post-Rock” and while I don’t particularly agree* I do recognize and enjoy the sea-change impact that they had on indie rock in the mid-1990’s. No one on the indie landscape does quite what Tortoise does in practice or in sound. They are the ultimate instrument playing genre colliders. Tortoise does with instruments what DJs can only dream of doing with an arsenal of samplers; Tortoise swallows difficult genres (Jazz, Krautrock, Prog-Rock, Dub, Punk, the list goes on…) and reconstitutes them into insane progressive mash-ups that evoke their influences in brilliant, discordant, and challenging ways. The fact that they can do all that and still lay down a deeply enjoyable jam is Tortoise’s own special brand of genius.

I last saw Tortoise performing their greatest album “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” in its entirety at All Tomorrow’s Parties NY in 2008. During that set the band came across as intense, professionals hard at work re-creating their studio-born masterpiece. On Tuesday night at the Black Cat the band took to the stage and launched into a three-song stretch that evoked ATP NY’s almost scary intensity. Seeing them play (what I believe was) “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In”, “Northern Somethings”, and “Gigantes” like that was incredible. Their rotating double drum, triple keyboard, double bass, double then triple xylophone/vibraphone** attack was jaw-dropping. Watching five men on stage swapping instruments and roles like inter-changeable parts while playing the most complicated and contradictory rhythms without missing a beat was one of the most impressive displays of instrumental versatility that I have seen in some time. At the end of their third song I shook my head in disbelief and muttered to myself, “They are not human”.

In a way, those first three songs were the highlight of the show. They tore through just about every genre known to man in about 20 minutes like some kind of genetically-engineered, American indie rock, Kraftwerk-ian, super-soldiers. It was freakishly good.

After their intense opening trilogy Tortoise loosened up a bit. The band members cracked some smiles. One of them even began to dance! The tone of the music lightened up a bit too as they settled into a long stretch of some of their more jazz-oriented material. While still incredibly complex to pull-off the tunes were more laid-back and the atmosphere in the club shifted from awe-struck reverence to the typical Black Cat hipster shitty-chatty. The Black Cat has got a long running talking-during-performances problem and it reared its ugly head again in the middle of Tortoise’s set.

I am beginning to think that the Black Cat is DC’s worst venue because of the ignorant hipster crowd it always draws in. Why pay for a show to then ignore it and ruin it for others? A dude in front of me actually tried to start a fight with someone over a spilled beer. This, at a Tortoise concert! Could there be a more ridiculous concert to get in a fight at? I know how important it is for some people to get their monthly “cool” points by standing around and talking over a band they pretend to actually enjoy but it has been beyond ridiculous at the Black Cat for years. Ah, I digress.

The talking and general asshole-ry ruined some of the experience for me but I managed to take in the rest of Tortoise’s set from the back of the room, where their bass and electronics actually sounded better (deeper and much more powerful). I found this sweet spot just in time for their strong closing stretch which brought back some of the more challenging and in my opinion more impressive material. One of their songs that I did not recognize was an electronic-based jam that had an intensity similar to seeing Throbbing Gristle in concert. The end of their set also featured their excellent new single “Prepare Your Coffin” which showcases some great, twanged-up guitar playing. ‘Coffin’ was really reminiscent of classic Cinecittà Italian crime soundtracks from the 60’s and early 70’s. I didn’t really hear that influence when I listened to their album at home but in the live setting that sound and vibe definitely came to the forefront. I am curious if that is where Tortoise plucked that particular guitar approach from.

Tortoise treated the crowd of true fans with a second encore after most of the chaff had left. They closed the night out with a quieter but no less complex piece that was the just perfect as the clock ticked over from late Tuesday night to early Wednesday morning.

* mainly because the genre they supposedly founded sounds nothing like them and I always considered Slint to be post-rock’s closest progenitors anyway.

** not to mention the other instruments!

Michael splits his free time between defending the little guy and championing the underdog. He has been haunting the concert halls, dive bars, and greasy spoons of DC for the last 16 years. His interests include live rock music, researching obscure military/political conflicts, and good hamburgers. He is a friendly grump, has wisdom beyond his years, and is on a life-long quest to attain music nirvana. Follow him on Twitter if you dare!

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