Songs that depend on quiet instruments and minor sonic variations suffered little in transit from John McEntire’s pristine Chicago studio to the concrete patio of Austin’s Mohawk on Wednesday, July 15th.
They drew heavily from Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT, their second and third albums. The crowd cheered the guitar riffs that introduce “TNT” and “I Set My Face to the Hillside”, two of their prettiest tunes. The huge applause for the opening strains of “DJed” was funnier, since if a different band were on stage, they would probably be the shuffling of papers or a leather guitar bag chafing against a speaker.
Tortoise indulged in a projection screen, and one gets the sense that this is their substitute for vocals and banter. Or maybe it’s for anyone behind about the tenth row of bodies; no added visual is necessary for the lucky folks who are up close enough to see John Herndon, McEntire, and/or Dan Bitney play the two drum kits at the front of the stage. They ought to set the projector where only the nearby folks can see it, and elevate the drummers.
Most of the images were dull, even occasionally having a Windows 2000 screensaver quality to them. The one good part displayed a brisk series of floating heads that occasionally received speech balloons. This was right before a straightforward rendition of “Glass Museum”, in which Herndon’s snare rolls sounded as good as they do on Millions, but the crack of the drum had the obvious rock club harshness.
They seldom deviated from the studio versions of songs, which was fine, as their music is plenty organic and fluid to begin with. Their few jams were a mixed bag; it seemed like none of them wanted to get too crazy. Still, that held true for their best jam, a hookless, keyboard-heavy interlude in “TNT”.
The show seemed real well received, and Tortoise treated the big crowd to two encores. Whether Tortoise has gotten soft in the studio, they remain powerful on stage.