2005’s Don’t Look Back season is not just well under way but this Tortoise performance marks the mid-way point. Green On Red, Girls Against Boys, Isis and Teenage Fanclub have already performed their chosen selections, leaving Low, John Martyn Tindersticks and Ennio Morricone to complete the line-up over the next few months (Morricone’s concerts having been rescheduled back into December). The Tortoise record which “touched our hearts and minds” as says Barry Hogan of the ATP staff and was therefore chosen to be performed in its entirety was Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the group’s second album, released in 1996.
The present Tortoise line-up is not quite the one that recorded the album ten years ago but remains as it has been since Dave Pajo left just after the recording of TNT in 1998: John Herndon, Doug McCombs, John McEntire, Dan Bitney and Jeff Parker. Pajo had been in the group for the recording of Millions Now Living but Parker only joined the group in 1997.
Famed for their production, post-recording and studio work it was impressive to hear the songs played live and see it all still work perfectly.
The band chose to play the album out as it appears on record, beginning with the ambitious “Djed”. Over twenty minutes long and moving through many different sections, the opening track is just as impressive now as it was when first released and to see it performed so well live is testament to the group’s ability. The track, as with much of their material, straddles many genres forging a blend of styles which prove why Tortoise have been at the vanguard of the easily palatable avant-garde throughout the 1990s and onwards. Dub, electronica, ambient composition, krautrock, various jazz styles and modern classical forms are filtered in as the indie rock template is prised apart and fragmented. Having been famed for their production, post-recording and studio work it was impressive to hear the songs played live and see it all still work perfectly. Computers triggering samples blended perfectly with the keyboards, guitars, basses drums and vibes.
“Glass Museum”, another track to display how the band progress songs through sections with different moods, tempos and styles, came next, it’s awesome slow-paced instrumentals melding first into ambience then into fast, spiralling math guitar and complex vibes arrangments, and coming across strongly in the performance.
Next track “A Survey” takes a minimal form as Bitney and McCombs both play the bass, forever keeping a throbbing, moody root line accompanying subtle higher end riff fragments. Following that was “The Taut and the Tame”, another album standout which was performed powerfully, building tension with McEntire’s rolling percussion over triggered fast clicking, with bass, guitar, keys and vibes pouding in jazz notes before it all breaks in to a paced section from wherein the riffs get twisted up by the different instruments. Tortoise are so good at taking a riff or pattern, often complex enough, and then manipulating it, playing around with different instrumentation taking it on and passing it over as songs develop, sometimes quickly, or sometimes on lengthier journeys.
Although sounding remarkably similar to the record for the main part, the songs are quite different to experience for several reasons. The ability and musicianship becomes clear — particularly the punchy, tightness of McEntire’s drumming (both on ambient and electronic kit — which he also effortlessly switches between), the careful fret movements of Parker and McCombs, the sheer speed and precision with which Herndon attends to the vibes and the ability of all of them to switch between the different instruments — perhaps most notably Herndon and Bitney, the latter whom played synths and keyboards, guitar, bass, drums and vibes at various points. In the live environment you are able to see and not just hear how the song is developing — how the riff is changing from person to person and who is actually doing what in amongst what can sometimes be a very full texture. The slow, quiet minimal songs like the next track “Dear Grandma and Grandpa” become more powerful in front of a rack of speakers and live the presence on some tracks, such as the album closer “Along The Banks of the River”, of double instrumentation, here two drum kits, actually gives a noticable effect and filling out of the sound.
Not content with playing one album in it’s entirety and a lot more the band then seemed to going into all of Standards.
The last track of Millions Now Living is a very atmospheric number and closes the album on a serene note. But although it finishes the pre-established setlist and Herndon could be heard shouting “That’s it for the hits, no more hits!” the gig was far from over, it was only ten o’clock and the band clearly had much more to offer.
After a lengthy continuation of the set with a variety of material the stage was left, but the encore calls were answered, and with Herndon in headphones at his drum kit there was a feeling that some of the seemingly studio-heavy material of Standards might make an outing — a thought that would prove to be correct. Not content with playing one album in it’s entirety and a lot more the band then seemed to going into all of their 2001 album, starting with the energetic rouse of “Blackjack”, before the dub-fuelled “Eros” and then “Seneca” with its opening mess and then upbeat riff meanderings, all appearing very percussion-heavy. After leaving the stage again the band decided to return, still not content, and offer a little more, playing the complete leftfield “Monica” but the rest of Standards was alas not to come as Monica merged into a track from elsewhere and the gig was then to finally finish.
This gig deserves a top end rating for several reasons. The band faultlessly transferred the whole of the ATP-chosen Millions Now Living Will Never Die album. They then continued and did two encores offering far more than would have been expected. And they also just played tight and impressively — they did upbeat well, getting loads of people moving; they did contemplative, slower things well; and they took songs on journeys and explorations that highlighted an incredible group mentality and ability. Plus the Koko’s an awesome venue, and they did it justice. Hence five stars.