Tortoise keeps the energy flowing

Posted: July 22, 2009

Nothing like some righteous space-funk to get a show off the ground on the 40th anniversary of the first moonwalk - and that's the way it was Monday night when Tortoise launched its 15-song set at the First Unitarian Church.

Initially manning bass, drums and three keyboards, the rock-plus Chicago quintet opened with a souped-up "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In," which is also the lead track on its new album Beacons of Ancestorship (Tortoise's sixth full-length, and first new work since 2004).

Soon enough, of course, the shape-shifting ensemble had rotated instrumental duties - the closest thing to constants being Doug McCombs on bass and Jeff Parker on guitar, with John Herndon, John McEntire and Dan Bitney trading off on drums, often two at a time, facing each other - and the sound had morphed into mutant samba, alien jazz, incongruously bombastic lounge or some other typically seamless hybrid.

Three tunes in, the enthusiastic crowd seated in the pews of the church's high-ceiling sanctuary could no longer resist the rhythmic undertow, and came forward to loosely frug in the spaces around the stage/altar where the band played.

Tortoise kept up the sweaty energy throughout the 90-minute performance, assaying older favorites like "Eros" and "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men" as well as half of the lively new record. "The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One" demonstrated the band's knack for Ennio Morricone-inspired spaghetti western themes, and the frenetic show-closing "Yinxianghechengqi" reminded all of the members' punk-indie roots, with McCombs and Bitney burbling on bass like a pair of Mike Watts.

In stark contrast to Tortoise's instrumental everything-ism, Brooklyn-based opener Grey Reverend filled the church with clear-voiced vocals and impressive fingerpicking on acoustic guitar. His set was highlighted by a cover of Radiohead's "Where I End and You Begin (The Sky Is Falling In)" along with strong originals from both his forthcoming album and his self-released debut A Startled Wish, which was recorded in West Philadelphia a few years back. Recalling his dozen years of Philly residency - when he was mostly known as Larry D. Brown, playing with Need New Body (on sax) and Cynthia G. Mason, among others - the southwestern Pennsylvania native noted his development here as an acoustic player. He sent out "The Assassination of Jack Rose" in homage to the very-much-alive namesake Philadelphia artist, a stated friend and apparent influence in his engaging, post-John Fahey folk guitar stylings.

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