Live Review: Tortoise at The Empty Bottle in Chicago (4/28)

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The hometown show: where spirits are high, guest lists are full, and a band’s confidence is spiked, thanks to friendly faces in the crowd, and perhaps a traditional dinner at Lock Down Bar & Grill or something. When you give a Chicago mainstay like Tortoise home field advantage, though, it’s not always a boon.

For a band that is so cocksure in their abilities–their furrowed brows and tight-lipped demeanor often made it seem like they’d rather be steering through chorus after chorus of “Giant Steps” than play “Crest” one more time–nothing ever felt too dangerous about their set at The Empty Bottle. Tortoise have (probably) played The Empty Bottle more than any other venue in the world, the 10:00 p.m. show being their second set of the night, and the 10th appearance in recorded history. I had hoped that Tortoise’s set would create some new memories for the familiar bar, but the walls of the The Empty Bottle seemed to roll their eyes at their precision set.

tortoise 3 Live Review: Tortoise at The Empty Bottle in Chicago (4/28)

Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

That said, newcomers to Tortoise, lay-listeners, lifetime fans, and myself alike would be hard-pressed to find any fault in their show. The quintet, elder statesmen of the post-rock/indie-rock crossover movement since the mid 90’s, sounded like they had three coats of wax on their sound through the entire evening. All five musicians navigated around the various stations on stage (including two drum sets, and two vibraphones) in a round robin of showmanship and talent, all in a silent confidence communicated through raised eyebrows and head-nods. Like the inside of a clock, this kind of subtlety was fascinating from close up, but from further away it seemed like the band was just keeping time.

tortoise 2 Live Review: Tortoise at The Empty Bottle in Chicago (4/28)

Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

Many of their precariously stacked chord clusters and polymodal compositions stayed tried and true to their studio counterparts, even when working with material from their later, more jam-ready Beacons of Ancestorship. It wasn’t until that TNT classic “Swung From Gutters” when John McIntire and John Herndon squared off on the two drum sets did seams in their comfortable pocket start to stretch. Dan Bitney sent knowing smiles to the other members on stage as the song started to take new shape, tinnitus-inducing synth jabs spearing through the basic fabric, the motorik bass line elbowing its way to the front of the mix, and the two drummers kicking the song in the chest, finally causing the crowd to move a little more.

Oh, I wished for more of this flexibility, of this tension and release, of this fun happening on stage, and was happily greeted with it a few more times. It was most notable on “Blackjack”, Doug McCombs going off on a thrash/noise-rock tangent on guitar that dropped my jaw to the floor. I felt like I wasn’t at a Tortoise show for a moment–and that felt kind of good. “I Set My Face To The Hillside” moseyed along and breathed comfortably, “Seneca” amped up its proggy energy, and the encore gifted one of my favorites, “Glass Museum”, though that again stayed true to its polished form.

tortoise 4 Live Review: Tortoise at The Empty Bottle in Chicago (4/28)

Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

In the end, it’s a matter of personal preference–whether you want Tortoise to stick to the script like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, or to veer off into the improvisational fringes like Can or Jon Brion. They do both very, very well, and in a live setting, Tortoise seem to extract whole ecosystems of music from another era and bring them to life. Their songs are encased in amber, calcified on the outside, but still coursing on the inside with the DNA of left-field jazz, ambient, post-rock, indie-rock, avant-classical…you name it. I just wished that when they were recreated, they would test the electrical fence for weaknesses, run amok inside a controlled environment, or make us have to hide behind a sunroof of Ford Explorer for protection. A little chaos theory is all I’m asking for.

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