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Tortoise Vs. The Scientist

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Daniel M. Gill reviews Tortoise's recent collaborative live show with The Scientist in Los Angeles.

Tortoise Vs. The Scientist

Even as I approached the venue, this show had the feel of a real event. The show was advertised as "Tortoise Vs. Scientist" (I later found myself questioning this phrasing with my friends - why so antagonistic?). For once, a band was going to do something special, and only do it once on the whole tour, and they were only going to do it in LA. Los Angeles has long had an inferiority complex, and having just moved here from Manhattan a few months ago, it seems even more apparant to me - so it was a very good feeling to think that the men of Tortoise had planned something special just for us.

The concept for this show was to have Scientist, a pioneer of the Dub genre who is best known for his production work with King Tubby, remixing a Tortoise live set. The band was originally supposed to play two nights at the Henry Fonda theatre, but one the show was relocated to The Echo - a much smaller room - and the twist was added, and suddenly The Echo show seemed like a much hotter ticket.

When I first heard the idea for this show, I was imagining Scientist at center stage, acting as the great conductor for McEntire & Co., with a host of wires and knobs at his disposal (and perhaps draped in a white lab coat with wild hair flying about to give the full mad scientist effect).  I was hoping that maybe Tortoise would improvise their set, offering Scientist more experimental source material, with delayed snare drums ricocheting about the room with abandon, but this was not exactly the case.

Scientist positioned himself at the back of the room, at the sound board and the band opened with "Djed," which could very well be Tortoise's crowning acheivement. For the first few minutes, it was hard to tell what exactly Scientist was doing - but as the heavily delayed and reverb-soaked snare drums emerged in the mix, and Doug McCombs' bass was tweaked in and out of the mix, it became more clear that essentially what we were witnessing was a re-creation of a dub studio recording session from the 60s or 70s, with Tortoise playing the part of the reggae band and Scientist as himself, tweaking the controls with considerable restraint.

As the band moved into material from the last two records - It's All Around You and Standards, the mood was elevated to pure joy - you could see it on the faces of at least 3/5 of the band, but McCombs and Jeff Parker remained stoic throughout the evening. John McEntire, Dan Bitney and John Herndon, however seemed like giddy high school kids playing for a full house for the first time. 

Herndon was excitedly yelling out "Scientist! At the controls!" in between almost all of the songs - making sure that the crowd realized exactly what was going on, and in a way acknowledging the subtly of what Scientist was achieving. I talked with a few people around me who had heard Tortoise on record, but hadn't seen them live before, and they were having trouble figuring out exaclty what made this show different than any other show. One audience member commented that "I guess it's cool that they let this guy take over the control board and fuck with their sound and all, but I was expecting more."

It was a far less dramatic effect than what I had been daydreaming about, but the end result was just short of transcendent, but most certainly satisfying for a long-term Tortoise fan like myself who had become slightly bored with their output over the past four years or so. 

By Daniel M. Gill

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