Show Review: Tortoise at the Firebird, Tuesday, September 29

Categories: Show Reviews

The "math" and "post" prefixes have become journalistic inevitabilities in describing Tortoise's brand of rock. Digging deeper into the band, however, reveals its members' nerdy fascinations with jazz and minimalism - and so it stands to reason that Tortoise isn't exactly a party band. Shocking, then, that the first deliberate motion evident as the band took the smoky Firebird stage was Dan Bitney cheekily pumping his fist in the air from behind a double-decker keyboard rig. Art rockers often have a watch-and-learn attitude towards their audience, but Tortoise bore no pretension or pomposity. Rather, it felt like the band was letting the crowd in on a secret. Studio wizardry shrouds the group's records with questions (example: "Is that a flanger on the marimba?"). Last evening, Tortoise slid its pencil-marked Scantron sheet under the desk and gave out some answers.

Sparks didn't exactly fly during opener "Prepare Your Coffin." The propulsive jazz fusion rave-up (think "Bombs Over Baghdad" meets Pat Metheny Group) suffered only from technical difficulties with John Herndon's Moog synthesizer and Jeff Parker's guitar pedals. "Coffin" was the only moment that Tortoise was not in complete control over the fortress of gear on stage. By the very next song, "Gigantes," Bitney and resident producer John McEntire were crafting an eight-limbed polymetric Afro-Cuban dance beat while the rest of the band played musical chairs with guitars, keyboards and a vibraphone. The first of many highlights of the performance, "Gigantes" proved Tortoise's ability to draw intense and meaningful human emotion out of music sometimes considered "boring."

The bulk of material that comprised Tortoise's set came from its newest release, Beacons of Ancestorship, the band's most "live" record to date. Still, the group breathed new life into the album's tracks: "Minors" was heavier and dirtier, and the spy-movie funk of "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In" turned into the evening's best dance jam; its mid-song tempo change couldn't have been more effective.

For its nearly peerless musicianship, Tortoise displayed nary a hint of flashiness. Its members' abilities were impressive not only for their instrumental versatility, but also for their subtlety. All three drummers had unique styles - the jazzy McEntire, technical Bitney, and heavy-handed Herndon - and graced the kit only when their specific proficiency would enhance the song.

And Tortoise's twelve-song set was laced with levity. During longer breaks from keyboarding or vibraphoning, Bitney bounced around stage dancing like that guy in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones that doesn't play an actual instrument [ska ed. note: Ben Carr]. The first minutes of the encore were full of inside jokes between band members, both musical and verbal. Bitney announced that he would be playing a new song that isn't finished yet and, after a lengthy introduction, made a three second noise on the keyboard and said, "Thank you." Parker obviously flubbed guitar melodies on "Prepare Your Coffin," but he and John Herndon simply laughed it off - later, Herndon did a similar move behind the vibes. Meanwhile, the rest of us felt comfort in the knowledge that Tortoise is human after all.

This looseness translated to the music during the three-song encore. The spacious "Seneca" became a raucous noise anthem, with McEntire and Bitney sharing free jazz drum fills behind behemoth, sludgy chords. Beacons' biting "Yinxianghechengqi " followed with Herndon playing its speedy beats with punk rock abandon - if the song was written on sheet music, its tempo marking would simply read "as fast as possible." With the finale of the gorgeous and patient "Crest," Tortoise capped off a performance that was both impressive and moving. Hours later, my mind still races with the reminiscence of the set's stellar moments; I knew only ten minutes into Tortoise's performance that I may look back at this evening as a show that changed my life. Not bad for a clinical math rock band.

Venerable laptop artist Prefuse 73 played (or played along to a MacBook of) an hour of jazzy, noisy electronic music. The duo's live vocal effects and sample manipulations were interesting, but an awkward mix muddied their beats and made them hard to enjoy. Even so, Prefuse engaged the crowd and caused dozens of necks to crane in order to study the gear being used. Conceptually, it was fascinating, but Prefuse could certainly learn a thing or two hundred from Tortoise about live execution.

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