Monday, November 30, 2009

The Ecstatic Kaleidophone

Tortoise + Cluster, Royal Festival Hall, London Jazz Festival, Sunday 22nd November 2009

Well what a treat and a half this inspired bit of programming from the jazz festival looked to be, and sure enough it didn't disappoint. I've been a big fan of both of these bands for a good few years. I was a krautrocker in my teens (and still am), so I've been up for a bit of Cluster since then. I picked up on Tortoise from my London days and have seen them three or four times, but not for a few years. I was actually quite surprised to see them playing such a big venue as the Festival Hall.

Via the wonders of Spotify I'd been able to check out Cluster's first record in over a decade, 'Qua' before the gig. Whilst Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius aren't exactly breaking new ground here, it is a fine record. With a combined age of over 140, there's a certain regal charm to their presence on the stage, but somehow the music they produced tonight didn't quite seem to grab me. Given the sound Cluster make, I'm certain its lack of impact wasn't helped by the low volume and constant distraction of having people walking past going in and out. The Festival Hall wouldn't allow this for classical concerts and most of the other jazz concerts, and I think the same respect should have been given to Cluster. Tortoise shuffled onto the stage to join them for last ten minutes which was a nice respectful touch.

The mutual respect was returned after the break when Cluster joined Tortoise for a short ambient jam before the set started proper. With our ambience quotas boosted, it was time for a kick, and Tortoise did the job with an incendiary version of 'High Class Slim Came Floatin' In' from their new record, 'Beacons of Ancestorship'. It's all there in this track, the twin drum driving groove, the square-on-the-beat arpeggiations, all topped off with a gorgeously fat moog lead line. Two changes of tempo, and we're into a surging Stereolab metronomic powerhouse ending much reminiscent of the anthemic 'French Disco'.

The centre stage twin drumming is a key part of the Tortoise sound, and one they make work so well. Drum duties are shared more or less equally by John McEntire, Dan Bitney and John Herndon, with the deep groove pulse being at the heart of many of the tracks. It works brilliantly on everything from the packing case thrash of 'Northern Something' to the narcotic shambling haze of 'Monica', the latter tune being mesmerically phenomenal tonight. Doug McCombs keeps the bass backbone true and Jeff Parker fills in with guitar sheen, overdrive bite and metrical synth lines in varying mystical proportions. This is no fixed configuration however, with all players sharing rhythm, lead, harmony and textural tasks to cook up the timbral alchemy. They make the punk clatter of 'Yinxianghechengqi' sit side by side with the mournful latino twang reverb of 'The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One'. The cymbal splashy fast shuffle groove of 'TNT' was, as usual, messianic, and 'The Suspension Bridge At IguazĂș Falls' a marimba-vibraphonic delight. At times this felt like an illicit kaleidophonic ecstasy.

They encored with a mature and graceful take on the majestic 'I Set My Face To The Hillside' that oozed pure solar coziness, following up with a punchy quarter/triplet fooling 'Charteroak Foundation' to conclude a dream-like evening. Quite brilliant stuff. Truly a dream come true.

'Monica' live in Barcelona:

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