July 3, 1998
LONDON E1 VIBE BAR
[a]Tortoise[/a] in concert unify strands of dub music, techno, post-rock and the avant-garde; supported in London by the slighty disorientating [a]Plaid[/a]...
NOTHING BEATS an evening of good, old-fashioned illicit fun. And the sense of borderline legality that pervades in this converted warehouse seems essential to the enjoyment of tonight's event. Not since the turn of the decade, when scores of ravers danced the night away in abandoned buildings, have there been such naughty pleasures as these.
But Tortoise have always been mavericks, so it's fitting that they've decided to avoid the traditional gig circuit just this once. With DJs on the decks in the main bar area and an Internet cafi close by, patrons are encouraged to wander about, although the lure of the main stage remains the most powerful.
Plaid, who come signed, sealed and delivered by Sheffield's Warp Records, would seem to relish this low-key ethos, as they invite people to focus on their computer-generated musical patterns, and not the two vaguely nervous figures onstage. Andy Turner and Ed Handley's barrage of sounds would once have been called cerebral - dance music you can't actually dance to - if they weren't harnessed to a series of funky grooves.
At times disjointed, at other times slighty disorientating, Plaid are resolutely of the current age. Do-it-yourself dance music with a surreal edge. If the music industry is ruled by the twin demons of commerce and art, then Tortoise are with the latter. Should this escape the attention of any concerned passer-by, tonight's suite of songs is accompanied by a slide-show of a single high-rise building, shot from various angles. An old Andy Warhol idea, perhaps, but one that shows the Chicago natives don't lack a sense of humour.
Indeed, the austere Tortoise of the past (who were like jazz scholars wreaking havoc on underground rock) seem to have been replaced by a warmer version of their former selves, although their onstage movements are still rare enough to be rationed out. There are no dance routines here. Still, it does take a serious depth of concentration to unify strands of dub music, techno, post-rock and the avant-garde, and John McEntire (pictured) and the crew are quite capable of throwing a challenge to those with diminished attention spans.
The music that Tortoise consume gets regurgitated with their own stamp. Which isn't to label their music vomit, far from it, just to convey the fact that 'I Set My Face To The Hillside' is possibly the greatest soundtrack theme Ennio Morricone never wrote, with drawn-out tremolo guitar twang and an impression of strings... and yet, despite the close resemblance, the song remains theirs. A certain amount of instrument-swapping and onstage dub-mixing would normally make for a degree of looseness, but few notes go awry.
The way 'Equator' condenses a simple techno motif into a clattering dance track has to be heard to be believed, and yet still Tortoise remain on the margins of the dance ethic. Maybe they're just too learned - and lofty - to craft functional music for a specific purpose. After all, most of the time, they're very busy trying to reinvent the wheel.
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