TORTOISE – Locomotic Club, Bologna 19th February 2016
“No moving lights please”. This is the polite but firm request made to lighting engineers by Tortoise’s Dan Bitney after the first song.
The message is clear; the beats may sometimes be danceable but this ain’t no disco.
But the question as to how exactly you do begin to categorize the music of Tortoise has been an ongoing challenge for the past 25 years of the Chicago band’s existence.
Calling it post-rock, as many still do, runs the risk of implying that the band are somehow opposed to conventional rock music. In an interview with The Wire in 2001 John McEntire said “As far as I’m concerned all we’ve ever been is a rock band” and on the strength of their brilliant sold out show at Bologna this is clearly still his position.
What makes them less conventional, and thus harder to pigeonhole, is that no-one sings and they are so clearly wide open to sounds and rhythms from other genres. Jazz is an obvious influence but there are also strong elements of funk, soul and R’n’B.
A clue to another key component to their sound comes from the extract from Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians which immediately precedes their appearance on stage. Reich’s music as a whole includes inspired experiments with clapping, African drumming and marimbas so it’s easy to see why this classical minimalist composer should be a hero of the five guys named Tortoise. On stage there are two marimbas on each side and two drum kits are centre stage. Synthesizer, bass and electric guitars line up behind.
Britney, John Herndon and John McEntire are all drummers and take turns playing. Sometimes two of them play opposite each other in a kind of duelling percussion. The prominance of these drum beats was the biggest surprise for me. It is just one of the aspects that doesn’t come across so strongly on disc. Without question, the band sound is infinitely more dynamic and assertive than on their recordings.
The level of concentration needed to pull off the complex arrangements means there are no smiles or significant interaction with the audience but they don’t come across as cold or remote. It is serious fun for all concerned.
I have never been able to remember the titles of their tracks so I can’t identify the high points by name, What I can say is that the superbly paced and varied set entirely merited the two encores.
As I left, I reflected that while I can say without fear of contradiction that I’d been to a rock gig, if someone asked what kind of music I’d just heard I’d have been stumped to give a convincing reply.
By now, it is something of a cliché to say that there are just two kinds of music – good and bad but falling back on this old chestnut has its uses.
Tortoise play good music.