An Evening of Experimentation and Exceptional Groove

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Image by Justin Filpes

By Xin-Rui Lee, staff writer 

There’s no easy way to describe Tortoise in a single coherent sentence. With a career spanning a quarter of a decade and 7 complex genre-defying albums under their belts, if there’s anything they’ve got in multitudes it’s street cred. They’ve dabbled in the instrumental realms of “deconstructed” jazzy sounds, prog-rock, post rock etcetera etecetra, and now releasing their latest album The Catastrophist seven years after we thought they were done, they’re starting to throw in vocals. Venturing out to Gowanus, Brooklyn, we saw the five-piece pioneers at their second sold out show in NYC.

The venue is a converted 1920’s textile warehouse, ready to suit all of your groove laden performance needs. The ceiling is tiled with acid wash panels of metal that then taper off to copper waves of various magnitudes. The crowd is slim an hour after doors and people are ambling about as a thick black curtain cordons off the stage, filling their time by spending money on drinks and band merchandise (especially since the crowd is of an age where they can afford to spend on drinks and band merch i.e. Older.) When the stage is finally set up, the curtain is pulled back to reveal 3 drum kits, a marimba, bongos, a hazardous number of wires, and all manners of distortion pedals, gadgets and gizmos galore. There’s a laptop too, and it’s not a Mac. Needless to say we are thoroughly impressed.

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Image by Justin Filpes

Beginning their performance un-punctually around 8.24pm, the trio of percussionists entitled Man Forever comes on stage in t-shirts and jeans. They set the vibe for the evening, relaxed and casual, but entirely engaged and serious about the music. For the next 20 minutes or so, they play one song. Furiously pounding their drums, beads of sweat start to trickle down their faces 10 minutes in, but they remain focused and keep the rhythm, and for this we must commend their sheer stamina.

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Image by Justin Filpes

Man Forever make their exit, and before long the lights dim and the music morphs into sounds of a tropical forest. Previously veiled beneath a cloth, an instrument somewhat akin to a mini organ that sits in the middle of the venue is revealed to be some sort of mish mash between a synthesizer and an Indian pedal harmonium. An eerie pink light is cast across Jaime Fennelly (otherwise known as Mind Over Mirrors), the man that helms this fascinating beast. He begins with a single undulating chord as audience members start to form a circle around him. He then builds loops upon loops as more people gather round, and to watch the pedals crumple beneath his feet is oddly entrancing. If you’re into music that sounds like it’s meant for dancing across the universe, we recommend you check him out. He ends his performance without saying a single word.

As Tortoise set up, the room is finally filled. Looking around one can’t help but notice it’s a male dominated audience. What is it about post rock instrumentals that draw men like moths to a flame? Greeted by applause of a lower tone than usual, Tortoise makes their entrance.

“We’re gonna need you to be really quiet…” Dan Bitney instructs the audience, to which they increase the volume of their applause. “I’m just jokin! Make some noise!”

And with that line, we become painfully aware that witty banter isn’t quite their strong suit. But the characteristic dad humour is greatly endearing. Launching into their set, the diversity of Tortoise’s sound is astounding. Some moments the bass reverberates throughout your entire being, and the next you feel like you could place the tune in a spy flick, and then maybe a samba. With each song they reshuffle their positions on stage and claim different instruments, every member evidently having an impressive degree of musical mastery. Midway through “Monica” from Standards, a cymbal malfunctions and they awkwardly attempt to fix the situation.

“Sometimes music is like people, it breaks down.”

The forgiving audience attempts to cushion the silence.

“We’re fans of you’re band!” someone calls out as John Herndon scrambles to find a replacement cymbal. This back and forth between band and audience continues throughout the evening and features a chorus of wolf howls (yes, wolf howls), birdcalls, and lots of whistling. For their first encore, they bring out Georgia Humbley from Yo La Tengo to perform “Yonder Blue” from The Catastrophist.

After their second encore, which comprised of songs from their earlier albums, the band take a final bow. “Thank you Brooklyn! You are too kind!” the otherwise quiet Doug McCombs proclaims in the voice of an overzealous baseball commentator. “And thank you to Georgia Humbley! The greatest musician! To ever grace! This planet earth!”

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