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.

Are Umphrey’s McGee LA’s quintessential jam band?

Umphrey's McGeeBy Josh Herwitt //

Umphrey’s McGee feat. special guest Joshua Redman //
The Wiltern – Los Angeles
March 6th, 2015 //

Los Angeles has never been known as a home for jam bands. For as well-rounded as its music scene stands today, LA hasn’t ever been a prominent city for jam bands quite like Denver, San Francisco and other smaller U.S. markets have.

While psychedelic rock thrived in the City of Angels five decades ago thanks to bands like The Doors and The Byrds, much of the counterculture that was born out of the 60’s and remains connected to today’s jam band scene isn’t one many LA bands strive to recreate, whether it be sonically or culturally.

So, in a city with as much music and creativity as LA, how is that there are no well-known jam bands, past or present, that officially call it home?

Maybe it’s because LA’s penchant for glitz and glamor has always been a major turnoff for most jam bands. Or maybe it’s the city’s high cost of living that is just too demanding for many to survive in nowadays.

But if there’s one jam band that could finally transform that notion here in La-la-land, it might be Umphrey’s McGee.

The six-piece originally hailing from South Bend, Ind., isn’t your typical “jam band” in the traditional sense. Umphrey’s, for one, have always had an affinity for progressive rock and heavy metal, with a long list of influences ranging from King Crimson and Pink Floyd to Iron Maiden and Guns N’ Roses. For that very reason, their fan base’s demographics remain fairly widespread — much like another well-known jam band by the name of Widespread Panic, coincidentally enough — from young, tie-dye-wearing hippies to 50-year-old dads with long, shaggy hair who just want to rock out.

Umphrey's McGee

That said, it isn’t hard to spot the group’s jam band qualities either. Over the course of their 18-year career, Umphrey’s have demonstrated quite a few of those characteristics, whether it’s been the band’s live improvisation, ever-changing setlists or open taping policy.

That’s not all, though.

With their repertoire of covers, nothing appears to be off-limits for Brendan Bayliss (guitar, vocals), Joel Cummins (keyboards, vocals), Ryan Stasik (bass), Andy Farag (percussion), Jake Cinninger (guitar, vocals) and Kris Myers (drums, vocals) these days.

Consequently, it’s a recipe that continues to draw more and more fans each time Umphrey’s play LA. After graduating from the House of Blues Sunset Strip to The Wiltern last year, the Chicago-based band returned to the historic, art deco venue on Friday night and had the 1,850-capacity theater packed from the front to the back. If the show wasn’t completely sold out, it felt damn near close. And really, when you think about it, that’s not bad for a band — let alone a “jam band” — that only plays LA once a year. Add in the fact that Cummins and now Myers live in LA, and it makes even more sense that Umphrey’s McGee could be well on their way to becoming LA’s quintessential jam band.

Playing two sets and an encore for a total of almost three hours, Umphrey’s performed a number of cuts from their upcoming ninth studio album The London Session, which was recorded in one day at Abbey Road Studios in London. Unlike the year before where they shocked everyone at The Wiltern with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” there were no big surprises this time around. Instead, we were treated to classics like “Bridgeless,” “In The Kitchen” and “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” as well as a cover of The Police’s “Driven to Tears” to close out the second set, not to mention Joshua Redman’s jazzy saxophone lines at various points throughout the night.

Umphrey's McGee

Yet, what was also interesting to hear was Tool’s Ænima being played over the PA system in between sets. Whether that was Umphrey’s choice or the venue’s remains unknown, but the selection definitely said something about the type of music fans who occupied The Wiltern that night.

Formed in LA during the early 90’s, Tool has been one of the most respected rock bands over the last two decades. With multiple Grammy Awards and countless sold-out tours inked on their résumé, Tool’s prog-rock/alt-metal tendencies have won over fans both far and near, garnering one of the strongest cult followings in rock despite the fact that their last album 10,000 Days came out practically nine years ago.

As cultivators of “improg” (live improvisation + progressive rock) and fans of heavy metal, Umphrey’s McGee in many ways fall under the same musical tree, even with all of their “jam band” attributes. Sure, they likely won’t be selling out two nights at Staples Center — much like Tool did in 2006 — anytime soon, but with the audience they’ve been gradually building in LA, they may finally be on to something.

UPDATE: Umphrey’s McGee have confirmed to us that Tool was the band’s choice to play during intermission at The Wiltern.

Set 1: October Rain, Bridgeless > Gents > Bridgeless, Booth Love > Rocker Part 2, Professor Wormbog*, Made to Measure* > Bad Friday*

Set 2: Miss Tinkle’s Overture, Hajimemashite -> In The Kitchen, Wife Soup*, 1348* > Educated Guess* > 1348*, Driven to Tears

Encore: Plunger

*with Joshua Redman on saxophone