(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)
Headliner Tortoise closed Thrill Jockey’s 20th Anniversary show following a string of performances from the label’s talented stable of artists. After their set, a woman in front of me turned around and said, “I’m not emotionally capable of having Tortoise leave.” I asked her, “How high are you?” She leaned in closer and answered, “I haven’t had anything to smoke and I’ve only had one drink.” She continued, “Fifteen years ago, my friends and I used to get stoned and listen to them in our dorm rooms. Now the friends I listened to them with are all married and some have kids. I’m a godmother to one of my friends’ kids.”
And that, the experience of the woman in front of me, is the closest I can get to an understanding of Tortoise. They’re the indie-rock group of the ’90s that friends listened to and spoke about excitedly. They provided a soundtrack, behind which drugs and ideas were exchanged. They made music feel personal and magical—the way every generation produces and supports its innovative creators. And while I may not have been in that dorm room 15 years ago, I still sensed what it was like, and I felt part of something in hearing Tortoise return to Webster Hall.
It is unusual now to hear instrumental rock in concert. It simply isn’t in vogue to perform on bass, drums and guitar without vocals. There is a collective sense of something missing. But Tortoise overcomes this intrinsic difficulty with songs that dazzle and delight. The five members of the group are musicians’ musicians: They trade instruments, play with physicality and always seem to incorporate something technically impressive into their songs. It is progressive rock in that it is multiple minutes of instrumentals, but it is more. It is indefinable, wholly unique and personally felt.
Photo courtesy of Gregg Greenwood | gregggreenwood.com