Tortoise - Village Underground, London
Chicago’s native sons return to these shores for a one off - and sold out - UK date in support of 2016’s The Catastrophist, wrapping up their whistle stop tour of Europe before decamping back to the US. It has been a long road for the post rock/Jazz fusion quintet (16 years and counting), all the while refusing to conform with the latest fad or to strive for commercial acceptance. The warm welcome they receive tonight from the good people of Shoreditch cements their place as elder statesmen on experimental rock music, in a venue as unique and thriving as Village Underground.
The same could not be said for the support act Ulrika Spacek, a last minute addition to the bill (the lead singer stating they weren’t booked until 11am that morning). The group ripped through their 45 minute fuzz rock set, blending almost Thom Yorke-esque vocals with screeching Sonic Youth guitar work with a sprinkling of Velocity Girl era Primal Scream. Great tracks, the problem? They didn't look like they wanted to be there - at odds with the excitement in the air and the attitude of headliners Tortoise.
Taking to the stage to rapturous applause, they launch straight into their set with the title track from their latest, and proceed to hopscotch between tracks from that release and a sprinkling of fan favourites from TNT and Beacons of Ancestorship. Looking greyer around the temples, especially mainstay bassist Doug McCombe who seems to have complimented his bald head with a brilliant white bushy beard (picture Uncle Albert from ‘Only Fools and Horses’ but channelling his WWII experiences into free form Jazz Fusion; you're about there). The beginning of the set is played a little safe as for the first 2 or 3 tracks it feels as if they are sizing up the potential, and attitude, of the crowd. It is early during the set, when swapping instruments in pin drop silence, that a voice from the crowd can be heard shouting “It’s only bloody Tortoise!”. With that, the tension evaporates, the smiles and groove appears, and they come out of their shell with rib cage rattling bass, pristine drum work, and reinterpreting and mutating their catalogue – drawing you in to their world.
The usual tricks and traits of Tortoise are there, the instrument swapping and dual drum work (courtesy of the Johns Herndon and McEntire) of tracks such as ‘Gigantes’ with the rarity of a predominately instrumental group playing without any kind of visual accompaniment – drawing your focus to the players and the music itself. Apart from the obligatory “Thank you London!!” over the microphone, and a few words of thanks courtesy of John McEntire (who seemed to believe that he could be heard if he addressed the packed crowd without a microphone), the group remain mute choosing to leave the stage after their 2nd encore and set closer ‘I Set My Face to the Hillside’ with nothing more than a polite wave. Judging from the performance given tonight, nothing more needs to be said: it’s only bloody Tortoise indeed.
1. The Catastrophist
2. Prepare Your Coffin
3. Hot Coffee
5. Shake Hands With Danger
6. Ten-Day Interval
9. Yonder Blue
10. High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In
14. At Odds With Logic
15. I Set My Face To The Hillside