Only around 200 people paid to see Tortoise last night, a band that sells out shows just about anywhere else. But this is, after all, Omaha. And yet, the band couldn’t have been too dissatisfied eyeballing the crowd from stage. The main room was packed to the gills with star-struck gawkers who never thought they’d ever see the band in Omaha, let alone in the intimate confines of The Waiting Room.
I freely admit to not being a follower of Tortoise, having only heard a few of their tracks online. I can’t say I’m a complete convert after last night, either, though I dug what I heard and saw. Unlike other instrumental bands (Tristeza, The Album Leaf, etc.) the Tortoise guys were actually having a good time, judging by the grins on their faces. They were five dudes in constant motion, circling the stage, trading instruments from song to song. The guy handling guitar on one song would be behind a drum kit on the next before moving to a vibraphone and then to guitar. Constant shifts without a drop in quality, like a team of astronauts able to flawlessly perform each other’s maneuvers just in case one of them accidentally gets jettisoned.
For the uninitiated, Tortoise’s music is like listening to the real cool parts of the Risky Business soundtrack — you know, the scene where Joel and Lana make it on the train? Like that, but with the added cacophony of multiple percussion and the occasional roaring guitar. There’s a clean precision to their angular, jazzy compositions that seemed almost mathematical, though they left plenty of room to stretch beyond the sonic circuitry. The set-up involved two drummers (sometimes), a bass (sometimes two), guitarist (sometimes two) a keyboard/synthmaster, and two vibraphones (one acoustic, one digital) on either side of the stage. Video images were projected on the screen behind them — subtle digital graphics that bordered on screensavers. The hottest moments were when two drummers stared each other down from opposing drum kits set up at the front of the stage. Nice.
Only one flaw stood out amidst all that precision: About three songs into the set the drummer stopped and said, laughing, “I can’t play this.” He couldn’t hear the bass in his headphones. “We’ll try it again.” But they never could get it worked out. “OK, moving on.” It was more amusing than annoying. The only other criticism is in the “sameness” of their music, which rarely shifted tempo or dynamics — songs bled into each other — it was more of an experience than a series of musical moments. You left with a sense of what Tortoise sounds like, not with the memory of an individual song.
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