Tortoise, Lichens enchant Chicago’s Lincoln Hall (2/20)

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    After the apparent frustration of playing a fan-picked set at last summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, Tortoise‘s anticipated return to performance in their hometown finally came Saturday evening at the newly established Lincoln Hall.

    The sparse crowd that decided to show up on time wasn’t quite ready for eccentric, experimental opening act Lichens. Robert A.A. Lowe, bassist and vocalist from seemingly dormant Chicago post-rock act 90 Day Men. I’ve seen Lowe do his thing before, and it seems he relishes putting himself on his toes. I’ve seen him envelope a small, gallery space with looped vocal melodies, acoustic guitar and gong; however, this show was a different story.

    Lowe took the stage, placing a cup of tea next to his chair and stretching his neck. He made a single popping sound into a microphone, looped it, and silently shifted the pitch to make an arpeggiated sample of vocal pops. The smug, yuppy crowd there to see Tortoise howled “rock ‘n roll” and “woo” while Lowe went to work on the first step of his musical process.


    Next, he added layers of ethereal falsetto, each chillier and lither than the last. Guttural hums and breathy, sub-bass rumbles followed next, Lowe’s arms stretching, fingers tracing the air, head arced like some forlorn, hipster mystic. The piece was majestic, transcendent; Lowe knows melody and harmony, crescendo and decrescendo, build and release.

    But, this was a Tortoise show after all, a celebration of their return to Chicago after a nine day tour. As promised, the set was chock full of tunes from the new Beacons of Ancestorship, but also plenty of old favorites. “Gigantes” and “High Class Slim Came Floating In” were particularly strong, garnering plenty of dancing through the now full room. Newly beard-ed multi-instrumentalist Dan Bitney seemed to be enjoying the show more than his bandmates, rhythmically flailing and swinging his arms around. The drumming, provided by one or two of Bitney, John McEntire and John Herndon at various points in the set, remained frenetic, impulsive and charging.

    But, as McEntire had suggested in our interview (unfortunately, in his mind), the biggest applause of the night came for the “golden oldies.” Standards standard Monica drew massive applause. The vibraphonic plink of “Eros” got people bobbing as well. The latin swin of “I Set My Face to the Hillside” warmed the place up some, as well. But, the encores were the true heart of the set.


    After being lured back out by plenty of shouts of “Johnny Herndon is a rock star” and “Woo! Tortoise!”, the quintet jumped into punky Beacons track “Yinxianghechengqi”, Bitney again acting the wild rock star part, swinging his axe around as he riffed out the piece. The epic and much-loved “TNT” followed, yet the crowd was not sated. An eventual second encore followed, opening with the ultimate album opener, “Seneca”. From Tortoise’s superb Standards, the opening double-drumming cymbal rolls and tom fills crashed around like the beginning of the perfect national anthem. The funky tune chugged along, filling the hall with swinging appendages and bobbing heads. And, as if the closing clap-along wasn’t an epic enough way to end a set/concert/evening/tour, the group swam through a serene version of Millions Now Living Will Never Die favorite “Glass Museum” to end the night.

    I’m going to go ahead and assume everyone left Lincoln Hall satisfied. Even those less than receptive to the astoundingly talented Lichens got a near two hour set from their local favorites. And, for those of us that appreciate both halves of that equation, so much the better.

    Photography by Martin Hamedani.