Monday, March 14, 2016



DAN BITNEY: Drums, Bass Guitar, Guitar, Vibes, Marimba, Percussion, Keyboards
JOHN HERNDON: Drums, Keyboards, Vibes
DOUG McCOMBS: Bass Guitar, Guitar
JOHN McENTIRE: Drums, Keyboards
JEFF PARKER: Guitars, Keyboards, Marimba

Once again, I have Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes to thank.

Over and again throughout my life, I have voiced tremendous gratitude to the late filmmaker for not only assisting me greatly through navigating my mid 1980's adolescence via his now iconic collection of teen films, unquestionably inspiring my creative life with writing and for the purposes of this posting, pointing me in the direction of an enormous amount of music that has only continued to influence and shape my life. The impeccable musical breadth and taste of John Hughes is now legendary with tales of his offices being filled floor to ceiling with all manner of records, late nights in his northern Illinois home writing away with music blasting, frequent jaunts to Chicago Wax Trax! record store for his purchases and most certainly, how he populated his films with handpicked selections from a variety of left-of-center artists and musicians from the likes of Everything But The Girl, Kirsty MacColl, New Order, The Smiths, Simple Minds and so many others, whom I never would have heard if not for him.

Hughes' musical influence has only continued for me over the years and I have to emphatically express that one of the most powerful arrived near the end of his filmmaking career through a barely seen independent film effort entitled "Reach The Rock" (1998).

Written and Produced by John Hughes and helmed by Director William Ryan, "Reach The Rock" is a darker, tougher, sadder film than Hughes' vibrant comedies of the 1980's and worlds away from the wild slapstick and holiday sentimentality of "Home Alone" (1990) and its offshoots. The film weaved a combined "heat-of-the-night/"dark-night-of-the-soul" spell for Robin (played by Alessandro Nivola) a young man, now four years out of high school, stuck in Hughes' mythical Shermer, IL. nursing the ever present wounds of his long departed, college graduate wealthy ex-girlfriend (played by Brooke Langton) plus the ire of his nemesis, an embittered, vengeful police officer (played by William Sandler) who blames him for the drowning death of his nephew.

At this point, I will assure you that there is a reason that I am providing somewhat of a mini film review inside of this concert review for a most important reason: for you see, John Hughes' "Reach The Rock" was the very film that introduced me to the music of Tortoise.
The existential crisis of Robin as featured within "Reach The Rock" contained a moody, interior and completely intoxicating and enveloping musical pulse provided by John McEntire, drummer/multi-instrumentalist and producer within Tortoise. Of McEntire and Tortoise, Hughes, in one of his final interviews, expressed to writer Julio Diaz of Ink 19 for their March 10, 1999 installment the following sentiments:

"My son gave me Tortoise records. They have a lot of mood, great tone...McEntire wrote a score that sounds like a record. It fits like a glove. It's really exciting. I wish I had someone like him 15 years ago."

And in speaking with MTV's Gil Kaufman for a January 14, 1999 interview, Hughes stated

"The music for this film is more subdued than previous films I've worked on...When you hear Tortoise and see these nighttime scenes where it's hot and you're waiting for the rain, and there's this impotent thunder in the distance, the mood of the music really matches the picture...The music just has so much integrity and stands so well on its own...His music just worked so well for the film and I think it's the best soundtrack I've done."

That was all I needed to read and in doing so, I went upon the hunt and purchased a copy of the soundtrack album long before I ever had an opportunity to see the film itself. And on the very first listen, I was mesmerized and further inspired to peruse Tortoise's back catalog, purchase subsequent releases and even a couple of John McEntire productions. .
The music of Tortoise vehemently defies classification and whenever I have found myself within the position of having to describe the band to a novice, I stumble over words and explanations simply because I just do not know precisely how to describe their aesthetic in the best possible terms for full understanding. Often, I just tell people to go on-line and listen to some songs via You Tube and hear them for themselves. That seems to be the best way for a band this unique and idiosyncratic.

As I previously stated, my enthusiastic response to my first listen of Tortoise was instantaneous. For music that is so difficult to explain, I found myself connecting to the music warmly as if the sounds were familiar even though they weren't. Fusing the worlds of rock, jazz, fusion, reggae, ambient, electronica, dub, soul, funk and even more into an instrumental amalgamation of those styles within a "post-rock" landscape was forward thinking enough. But having already sustained myself on a healthy diet of 1970's prog rock and fusion plus the electronic soundscapes of Tangerine Dream and the widescreen instrumental hip-hop of DJ Shadow, I think that I had a strong head start that assisted me greatly in becoming accustomed to Tortoise's musical universe, which is consistently shape shifting, demands the fullest of your attention, and still, like the band's name, is never in a hurry to reach its destination. But to my ears, the music Tortoise creates is music that is ALWAYS on time!
So of course, when I heard the news that the band would be arriving in my fair city in support of their latest release "The Catastrophist" (released January 22, 2016), their first album of new material in seven years, I barely had to give it a thought as to whether I would attend. On the seasonably chilly evening of Thursday, March 10th, I arrived at the Majestic Theater (I'm still getting used to the establishment not existing as a movie theater anymore), claimed by place as first in line and awaited for the doors to open for the night.
Upon entering the Majestic, I passed my the merchandise table and made my now requisite bee-line for the stage where I could take a moment to peruse the stage set-up. Knowing very little about Tortoise as a live act aside from their legendary reputation, I had to say that it made my heart jump in anticipation to witness two drum kits perched at the front of the stage and facing each other. It would be of no surprise to any of you to know that I would have loved to have had the opportunity to tap around both of those kits!
Anyhow, I was more than intrigued to see how the drums, typically set at the back of the stage, were placed front and center, with vibes (acoustic and electronic pads, respectively) augmenting the kits on both sides of the stage with guitars, keyboards and bass guitars stationed in the rear.

I soon ventured back to the merchandise table where a Tortoise import only CD was calling my name (yes, I purchased it). While the room was still more than quiet and scantily attended, I took a few moments to ask the young woman running the merchandise table what she knew about the night's opening act,  Mind Over Mirrors as I had never heard of them.

"Oh, it's just one guy," she said.
"Yes. Actually, he sets up right on the floor and performs there. It's real ambient type stuff and I think it goes really well with Tortoise's music," she explained.
"He performs right on the main floor? Not the stage?"
"Should I not be down there?"
"You can be down there. It's really interesting. Let me know what you thought later."

Taking her lead, I ventured back to the main floor where I did indeed scope out the tiny set up of archaic and (I am presuming analog) synths parked next to a small stool.

By shortly after 8:30 p.m., with the room filling up more, I noticed a man of slight build casually walk through the room, up to the Majestic soundboard and back to the set up on the main floor. "So, this is Mind Over Mirrors," I thought to myself.

Mind Over Mirrors, just as explained to me, consists of sole member Jamie Fennelly, who for approximately 40 minutes or so performed two extended electronic soundscapes directly upon the main floor of the Majestic, also just as described. It was a curious, and at first perplexing sight to see Fennelly approach his bank of keyboards, turn on a small red light and as the house lights of the Majestic eventually faded into darkness, the room was filled with the sounds of a slowly rising and ominous sounding electronic drone, which after for several minutes became a hypnotically dazzling ocean of sound. 
Much like how the sound of a pipe organ can fill every nook and cranny of a cathedral, the electronic music of Mind Over Mirrors performed precisely the same feat. With not even one word uttered to the crowd at any point, the music did all of the communication and it was indeed fascinating to see people slowly flow towards Fennelly's set-up, while also providing him with respectful space as to not disrupt the mood which had deeply enveloped the theater. With his feet pumping away at what I was wondering was some sort of harmonium and swirls of sound, this portion of the night reminded me of the times when I sat listening to vintage Tangerine Dream albums, just finding myself washed over with waves upon waves of warmly synthetic music. And by the time the house lights went back up, and Fennelly gave a polite wave to the audience, I really had felt as if I had been transported. 
By 10:00 p.m., it was time! Tortoise silently took to the stage and began the 65 minute set with a bulk of selections from their latest album including the title track, the appropriately menacing "Shake Hands With Danger," the soulful slow jam "Yonder Blue" (sans the rare vocals as heard on the album), the relentless prowl and creep of "Ox Duke," the slinky funk of "Hot Coffee," and the nearly Philip Glass styled dreamscape of "Gesceap."
Through each and every selection, I was floored. From the sheer complexity of the compositions to the palpable energy of the performances to the agility of all of the band members, especially as they often switched instruments, was gripping and transfixing. Certainly, being a drummer as well as from my vantage point at the lip of the stage, I found myself marveling at the percussive nature of the band's music in ways that I simply hand't before. 
Essentially, out of the five members of Tortoise, we have a band of percussionists as four of those members handled variations of percussion throughout the night and three members alternated turns at the drum kits, sometimes, with two members facing off with each other in poly-rhythmic fury and bliss on selections like the cacophonous "Senaca" from "Standards" (released February 20, 2001). the world travelling "Gigantes" from "Beacons Of Ancestorship" (released June 23, 2009), the sultry funk of "Monica" also from "Standards" (ladies, if your name happens to be shared with the title of that song, do make that your personal theme song!) and the stunning, transcendant marimba fueled ambiance of "Ten-Day Interval" from "TNT" (released March 10, 1998).
Tortoise, while functioning like an otherwordly jazz combo also possessed some rough edges to pepper the proceedings with that inexplicable rock and roll energy. The musicianship was superior and undeniably flashy but also performed without ego between the band members. For the compositions are indeed so intricately constructed that if one band member were to step out of place to provide some sort of heroic flourish, the entire song would crumble as each part connects perfectly with all of the other distinct parts of each song. Even so, it was fascinating to discern the individual styles of the bands members of Tortoise, especially those playing those drum kits.
Where Dan Bitney (pictured stage left and who also performed on keyboards, guitar and bass guitar) was clearly the most relaxed and fluid drummer, often exerting a jazz flourish, John Herndon (pictured stage right and who also performed keyboards) was the heavy hitter, packing a John Bonham-esque punch throughout the show.
Bringing everything full circle was the man himself, John McEntire, who was consistently a study of intense concentration, pushing himself to nail every single beat within these exquisite sonic textures to perfection, especially upon the prog rock leaning "Prepare Your Coffin." Where Bitney and Herndon made the drum patterns look so deceptively "easy" due to the relaxed focus with which they played, McEntire showcased the demands and the difficulties. And for the entire performance, all three were sensational and inspiring.  
Rounding out the band was guitarist Jeff Parker (who also contributed to keyboards and percussion) who served as a more angular player from perhaps the Robert Fripp/Steve Hackett school of guitar heroes with sumptuous and stinging six string atmospherics. Yet, he also threw down some Carlos Santana inspired licks during the band second encore.
Bassist Doug McCombs more than held the bottom end of the proceedings, he truly functioned as the essential glue holding all of the various rhythms and musical threads and strands together. Yet, when he occasionally switched to guitar, McCombs specialized in a certain rural, rustic almost Ennio Morricone influenced sound therefore conjuring up images of the past as the music surrounding him suggested the future and the unknown. The musical juxtapositions were thrilling to hear and of course, witness being represented directly in front of my eyes.  
Tortoise's performance was top to bottom excellent without question. Beautifully performed and constructed, with a set list (I think was presented chronologically backwards from the latest release to the earliest--at least until the encores) that worked as a gorgeous celebration of their 25 year plus existence. 

Personally, the night was not only a celebration of pure, unadulterated, high caliber musicianship of the sort that we do not often see (but I am wondering is beginning to make a comeback), it really was a culmination of an almost 20 year journey begun by a cherished late filmmaker's exemplary musical taste which has influenced and enriched me for so much of my life. 

And truthfully, it still continues to do so.
All concert photos by Scott Collins.

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