Tortoise: Live Last Night


Live Last Night

By Mark Jenkins

Like portrait painters who continue after the invention of photography, the members of Tortoise prevail at a craft that isn't strictly necessary. The eclectic Chicago instrumental-rock quintet, which performed Sunday night at the Black Cat, emulates various genres of machine-generated music. Yet the band produces nearly all its clockwork beats and synthetic timbres live.

Tortoise's latest album, "Beacons of Ancestorship,'' blends such favored styles as Latin jazz, German "motorik'' and American minimalism with noisy guitar and electro-funk's squelchy bass. The new album's playful sonic outlook dominated Sunday's set, on both such fresh material as "Prepare Your Coffin'' and earlier compositions. The 90-minute set was heavy on arena-rock flourishes and squawky textures that suggested the vocoder -- even though none of the band members sang.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

What they did do was play intricately meshed rhythmic and melodic motifs on standard rock instruments and a wide array of percussion. Three of the musicians are drummers, and all five switched instruments frequently. This allowed a wealth of contrasts, whether guitarist Jeff Parker was soloing over John McEntire's drums and Doug McCombs's bass, or John Herndon and Dan Bitney were conducting a vibraphone/marimba dialogue.

There was no hiding the quintet's debt to Steve Reich, who has often composed for marimbas, even if the band generally submerged the slowly evolving patterns for which he's known. The crucial distinction is that, while Tortoise churned simple riffs for several minutes, it also shifted emphasis at a gallop. Although the music sometimes seemed to be stuck, the pieces always ended at a place impressively distant from their beginning.

By David Malitz |  July 20, 2009; 12:20 PM ET Live Last Night
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This was the Genesis concert that I wanted to see when I was thirteen - all the sweeping, complex instrumentals, no "Illegal Alien" (Historical note: the members of Genesis were younger in 1983 than the members of Tortoise in 2009).

Posted by: gfriday | July 20, 2009 3:53 PM

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