Live Review: Tortoise at San Fran, Wellington

Tortoise San Fran Wellington


w/ fFolks and Hiboux

San Fran, Wellington

Saturday 3 December 2016


I arrived at San Fran  just in time for local act Hiboux, who set the mood beautifully for Tortoise. The five piece act played mesmerising rock music that had me moving, and even had a camera crew documenting their set (which didn’t help my confidence when taking photos – my entire camera is only a third of the size of many of the other photographers’ lenses!)  I loved the atmosphere that they created, and bonus points for including saxophone in a few songs.

Hiboux Tortoise San Fran

Hiboux. Bern Stock (L) and Lester Litchfield (R)

Watching roadies set the stage for Tortoise was an interesting affair. They carried item after item onstage and arranged the instruments accordingly. I was excited to see two drum kits facing each other at the front of stage. Funnily enough the kits were different brands (Pearl and Sonar). Does that mean the band has two different endorsements with drum companies? A a large vibrophone sat on the right of stage, and on the other end of the stage sat something that looked like a trigger pad crossed with a piano.Selections of guitars and basses stood in formation along rear, and a number of synths, sequencers and other electronic things sporting dials filled the spaces left.

Tortoise boasted some very talented players. And not only was each muso talented, but they all took turns playing different instruments, like Sufjan Stevens’ band. I wonder what this looks like at band practice when they are writing new material? How do they decide who plays what for each song when they don’t have set defined roles?

Tortoise San Fran Wellington

I think I figured out the answer to this from observing the band play. For the most part, the Santa-looking Doug McCombs ties the songs together with his bass guitar, while Jeff Parker sets the melody on guitar.  This leaves the three other members free to share their time between percussion and synths.

I am a drummer myself, and I loved being able to see two drummers playing off from each other right at the front of the stage, rather than having someone hidden away at the back in the shadows like we usually see. I remember being captivated by Genesis DVDs as a teenager, watching Phil Collins and Chester Thompson become one when both sat down behind their kits. I’ve seen a number of bands use two drummers in the past (Bon Iver, Death Cab For Cutie, Shihad, Incubus and The Roots spring to mind) but never in a revolving sense like Tortoise.

John McEntire is the groove master, sitting in the pocket and playing incredibly tight, uncomplicated beats, using the butt of the sticks on the snare. He takes the throne when the song needs something simple to lock in with McCombs. He also grimaces and looks like he is in pain while he plays. John Herndon, however, doesn’t merely play the drums, he beats them into submission. He is the monster, unleashing his frenetic energy to add busy percussive flavour to the mix. Dan Bitney sits in the middle, complementing everyone as drum duets form. He adds those extra elements that one drummer cannot offer with four limbs alone.

Tortoise San Fran Wellington

Tortoise play exciting music. Exciting because of how interesting and experimental it is. Gone is the verse-chorus-bridge type structure that we are accustomed to. Gone are the vocals. Why have a singer when you can have three drummers and vibes? Songs grew and layered in ways that are unique even within post-rock circles, with subtle frequencies taking turns to flash themselves at us.

It was a marvel to watch interactions between band members. Two drummers would become one, with bass slotting in perfectly. Members would casually move around the stage, playing a game of musical chairs. I would watch how they split their time. Someone would adjust a dial and set the right effects, then add some colour using mallets on the vibes, then shake a tambourine or shakers, and  finish off strumming on a guitar. And that’s all within one song!

Tortoise are stunning. Visually, they put on a brilliant show. Not because of lights and screens – but because of how they arrange the stage and share responsibilities.  And musically, they create sounds that are so unconventional and intriguing that one cannot help but listen with amazement. I caught myself grinning many times throughout the set. Grinning at the sheer… weirdness… talent… brilliance…? I’m not sure what exactly, but I cannot recommend seeing Tortoise highly enough.

All photos and words by Joseph James

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