Tortoise make their triumphant return to the stage after more than six years between albums

TortoiseBy Josh Herwitt //

Tortoise with Fell Runner //
Teragram Ballroom – Los Angeles
May 2nd, 2016 //

Monday night can be a tough night to play a show no matter where you are. Even in LA, where there is no shortage of live music seven days a week, Monday night shows can sometimes be a struggle for fans to commit to, especially when it comes to lesser-known bands performing at clubs and smaller-sized venues.

So, when I walked into the Teragram Ballroom a few minutes before local experimental rock band Fell Runner stepped onstage to open the show and noticed that less than a third of the room was full, I figured it would be a modest crowd on hand to catch headliner Tortoise, who hadn’t performed in LA since mid-2010. But little did I know, by the time the Chicago post-rock outfit was in the midst of its 75-minute set, the room was completely packed from the front to the back, making my Monday night feel more like a Friday night.

Tortoise, after all, have been around the block and back again. The five-piece that formed out of the friendship bassist Doug McCombs and drummer John Herndon forged has been at it for more than 25 years dating all the way back to 1990, when the band’s remaining cast of record producer/drummer John McEntire, percussionist Dan Bitney and former bass player Bundy K. Brown came on board. Brown has been gone for more than two decades now, but guitarist Jeff Parker has remained with the group for nearly as long, bringing a strong jazz background to Tortoise’s instrumental, heavily percussive tunes thanks in part to his collaborations with musicians like George Lewis, Ernest Dawkins, Brian Blade, Joshua Redman, Fred Anderson and Jason Moran.

Tortoise - John McEntire

John McEntire of Tortoise

What’s so impressive about Tortoise, especially for this first-timer, was watching all five band members play multiple instruments, with Herndon, McEntire and Bitney regularly switching between drums, keyboards and various percussion instruments (vibraphone and marimbas) during the show. Oftentimes when one song would finish, at least two of them would switch instruments. In fact, toward the end of the set, even Bitney strapped on the bass as McCombs moved over to play guitar and Parker manned his mini synthesizer. For a band that performs mostly instrumental music, it was this rotating element that kept things fresh from at least a newer fan’s perspective.

It took Tortoise six-plus years to drop their seventh and latest LP The Catastrophist, and while that’s certainly a long time between album releases, it has been well worth the wait. At the Teragram Ballroom, the quintet made sure to showcase a good portion of the 11-track record, which received generally favorable reviews from most major media outlets when it came out in late January and was one of our 10 albums to hear in early 2016. One notable highlight was no doubt “Shake Hands with Danger”, the experimental, yet haunting track that starts with McEntire laying down a simple groove on his drum kit and builds with more percussion from Bitney and some gritty guitar work from Parker.

For as well-rehearsed — the band has been touring for more than three months at this point — as Tortoise sounded on this spring night in LA though, it was surprising that their set didn’t extend past 11:30 p.m. considering the overall depth and breadth of their catalog. Yet, then again, staying out until almost midnight on a Monday night was plenty late for this slowly aging music fan.

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