Tortoise Bring the Thrill - Rolling Stone
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Tortoise Bring the Thrill

Chicago indie label celebrates ten years


American post-rock group Tortoise, circa 1997. Left to right: bassist David Pajo, drummer John Herndon, percussionist Dan Bitney, drummer John McEntire and bassist Doug McCombs. (Photo by Andy Willsher/Redferns/Getty Images)

Andy Willsher

It’s safe to bet there wasn’t a soul among New York City’s 8 million plus who hopped in a cab and rushed from Bon Jovi’s NFL kickoff performance in Times Sqaure Thursday night down to Irving Plaza for the first of a three-night celebration in honor of the tenth anniversary of Thrill Jockey, one of music’s most reliable, longer-running independent labels. That said, some odd 7.999 million were missing out.

But then, that’s sort of the point of Thrill Jockey. Started a decade ago by Bettina Richards, a disenfranchised A&R type formerly of Atlantic Records, Thrill Jockey specializes in musical fringes of varying stripes. And the label has issued dozens of recordings by fortysome bands, not one accompanied by the mantra of the indie rock loser: “I just don’t understand why they aren’t bigger!” Instead, Thrill Jockey has quietly found a way to make music not for the masses, but in a manner that has created fierce artist loyalty — and they’ve even made it profitable. Something of the bastard child of Chicago’s legendary Sixties jazz organization the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the Eighties indie-rock boom that gave birth to labels such as Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey was a primary player in a resurgence in a thriving Nineties scene in Chicago that is still perking, and unlike our retro-minded, chic subgenres of today (a la nouveau garage), it’s constantly looking forward.

The label’s flagship (as it were) artists, Tortoise and the Sea and Cake were the anchor for the three nights of music, the former headlining performances on Thursday and Friday at Irving Plaza, the latter closing things Saturday night at the Bowery Ballroom. In between was a festival-like atmosphere for discerning adults. In fact the sight from the stage must have looked like a shot of a crowd at a 3-D movie theater, with black plastic frames subbing in for the white paper specs. Extreme sports and temporary tattoo parlors sat out in favor of Looking for a Thrill, a series of interviews with musicians, Thrill Jockey or otherwise, recounting a first or memorable music moment. And with nearly twenty acts spread across the three nights, the sets were short, tight and punchy.

Which finally brings us to the music. The Chicago Underground Duo had the misfortune of drawing the first slot on the first night, and the venue was more than half-naked. But cornet player Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor still put together a terrific thirty minutes that found the former offering up his computer tweaked slurry lines, while the latter tapped out a rhythmic skeleton while simultaneously vamping on the vibes. With his multiple Chicago Underground configurations (they also come in Trio, Quartet and Orchestra editions) Mazurek’s music is something of a jazz time machine, erasing the genre’s past thirty years. Mazurek seems to have taken a peek at the two post-bop paths — the post-Ayler blowhards and the Miles-led fusionists — and found both lacking. If there is a leaning, it’s towards the electricity of the latter, but Mazurek has the benefit of the rise of electronic music, rather than electric, to help color his music. Rather than getting bogged down in the lumbering rhythms of rock and roll that capsized fusion and dragged it to the bottom of the ocean, Mazurek’s embrace of broad computerized embellishments, paired with his unique brass timbre feels not only new, but limitless in its possibilities.

The first evening set the standard for the seemingly disparate styles that nonetheless clicked together. The National Trust offered a loving deconstruction of classic R&B, while the Bobby Conn Band served up some of the best glam rock in ages. After the Eighties all but killed the subgenre, Conn and his ensemble — which included violinist Monica BouBou and the cock rock posturing of heavy-riffing guitarist Marc Ruecker — proved to be worth their weight in glitter. AACM vet Fred Anderson — backed by Taylor and guitarist Jeff Parker — was the celebration’s venerable figurehead, but the seventy-three-year-old tenor saxophonist proved as nimble and daring as the younger players. Doubled over as though he were shoveling dirt with his sax, Anderson’s style touches on that of tenor titans of yesteryear like Lester Young, but is punctuated with fierce runs that tinker and toy with expectations and structure.

Tortoise are serene and tame by emotional comparison, but the ensemble — which also features Parker on guitar, along with versatile instrument-hoppers including Douglas McCombs and John McEntire — are a live marvel, sans the bells and whistles. That rare group that uses silence to emphasize their diligently plucked and tapped sounds, Tortoise resemble that creature from which they took their name, moving slow and with purpose. And if indeed the word is derived from the Latin tortus, meaning the act of being “twisted,” it neatly fits their assimilation of myriad styles and genres, bent and altered into something that resembles nothing else; all served with the punklike panache of an avant-spirited group with the gumption to title an album of original material Standards.

The second night offered more of the different. Town and Country played a lovely set of minimalist musical chairs with their musical instruments (including the odd and charming hand chimes played by Liz Payne). 8 Bold Souls was one of the evening’s biggest surprises, a forward-thinking jazz ensemble that speaks in a more accessible vernacular. Led by another AACM vet, tenor saxophonist Edward Wilkerson Jr., the group ran through a rousing set. Like Anderson, 8 Bold Souls struck an interesting balance of past and present, as compositions like “Third One Smiles,” which echoed Herbie Hancock’s “Blind Man, Blind Man,” took cues from jazz tradition while finding abstract passages to avoid digging for fossils.

Night three felt a bit snug at the half-size Bowery, but the music was still terrific. Archer Prewitt’s solo set drew a randy response, and his tunes displayed a hearty pop sense (particularly on “Over the Line,” perhaps the closest thing a TJ artist has produced to a radio-ready track) that offered up the unlikely bedfellow spirits of John Lennon and Bread. Mountain music reconstructionists Freakwater weren’t best served in the slot between Prewitt and the Sea and Cake (in which he also plays). Their between song banter made for a particularly light set musically and one in which their patter fed audience chatter that threatened to drown out the lovely Appalachian harmonies on tracks like “Picture on My Mind,” “Binding Twine” and “Louisville Lip,” the third best song about a boxer ever written.

Sea and Cake closed things out in a manner fitting what might be the label’s most accessible band. With Prewitt and Tortoise’s McCombs joining mainguy Sam Prekop, theirs is beautiful, expansive pop, and like so much of the music over the three-day span, it demanded less of its audience than one might think: just some silence to allow music to sneak into the ear, rather than barking in the face.

The Thrill Jockey interaction was so instrumental that the label almost feels like a 21st century Stax. Chad Taylor played the Chicago Underground set before joining Jeff Parker to back Fred Anderson, with Parker then jumping into Tortoise, whose John McEntire plays anything requiring sticks or mallets in the Sea and Cake. Freakwater’s Janet Beveridge also serves in Eleventh Dream Day, and the former also enlisted Bobby Conn’s Monica BouBou who traded in her Laurie Anderson-esque violin sawing for a bit of fiddling. And despite the personnel synergy, nary a single act that took the stage sounded like one that preceded or followed. It’s an independent spirit that speaks to the extraneous nature of genres and subgenres, as each act performs with an almost Smurf-like distinctiveness, and like the little blue creatures, everybody seems, well, thrilled; speaking to the purity of the label’s lack of interest in next big thingdom is the fact that turnover is rare at the label, which has doggedly refused to be a farm club for the majors. Whether Richards serves up purple Kool-Aid or a better business model, you can decide. But in finding a way to sell such seemingly disparate music to an audience, rather than trying to find ways to let the audience define the music, Thrill Jockey has been content making and selling music successful in ways unrelated to SoundScan.


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