Once you see a band live a few times, you know what you’re going to get. With Broken Social Scene, you know there will be about ten of them; you know they’ll play a selection of great songs, which groove along1 with about twenty guitars and keyboards and a trombone and all sorts of other gubbins, Kevin Drew will tell us how much he loves and appreciates us (gotta love these Canadians), and there will inevitably be a few newer songs that make you go “Hmmm, they definitely went downhill after You Forgot It In People”.
But with Tortoise, I didn’t know. I’d tried explaining them to the missus as “Free-Jazz meets Post-Rock, played by aliens”. Which, as it turns out, is actually rather accurate. Yes, I missed off the bits that sound like a theme tune for a ’70’s French Open University programme (dig that xylophone!), and the dubby bits, and the two drummers, and the strange, strange sounds, and all the bits that suddenly twist and turn you inside out, and the floorshaking bass, and, and, and…..in reality, The Tortoise Live Experience needs to be Experienced and not Written About.
I can try, I suppose. In a word? IMMENSE. In some more words, “fucking brilliant”. Or even “So thunderingly good you cannot stop grinning or shaking your head in a strange way”. You know that when you’re dealing with a band that called a rarities compilation A Lazarus Taxon2, you may well be dealing with people significantly cleverer than you, and you know when you first hear a song like “Seneca” or “Prepare Your Coffin” that this lot know how to play, but the intensity and power they bring to their horrendously clever, yet oddly catchy music has to be experienced. I’d always thought there was a ton of studio trickery going on, but no; it’s five guys who can play horrendously well. Just the skeltering double drumming alone was worth the price of admission.
We’d managed to miss the first twenty or so minutes thanks to a babysitting snafu, and so I tried to relax and just enjoy the music. Some songs went by and I thought “They must be finishing soon, that’s nearly an hours worth”, then looked at my watch and saw only 20 minutes had passed. The music is so rich and dense with detail that your mind ends up abandoning all hope of unravelling this music entirely and you find yourself in a strange head-bobbing world, surrounded by this bizarre and wonderful noise. I can’t believe I’ve managed to miss Tortoise the last few times they’ve played in London, but you can betcha bottom dollar I’ll be first in the queue when they return.
Choosing Tortoise as the support was a brave move for Broken Social Scene, as there’s nothing more embarrassing than being blown off stage by your support act. But BSS have been touring in this configuration for a good five years, so they are a pretty sharp outfit, and know how to work that crowd. At first though, they seem a bit nervous, the opening section to “Pacific Theme” was tentative and it wasn’t until the song settles into its groove that the band visibly relaxed. But the problems inherent in BSS come to the fore with just their second song, “Texico Bitches”. Problems? Ok, one problem. But it’s a biggie.
The new songs just aren’t good enough. Sorry to say it, but most of Forgiveness Rock Record and Broken Social Scene, plus the “BSS Presents…” duology, are just a bit…meh. They have all the usual BSS ingredients – a lovely groove, little drum fills, deft guitar interplay, obscure lyrics – but they just don’t work particularly well. So, during a live show, you’re constantly wondering where the BSS Dice will fall. Good song, like “7/4 (Shoreline)”, “Cause = Time”, even the rarely played “Churches Under The Stairs” (more on which later)? All is good. BSS are one of the finest bands you’ll ever see. Not so good song, like “Texico Bitches”, “Sweetest Kill” or “Fire Eye’d Boy”, and you’re left wondering how a band with such obvious talents and track record can produce something so underwhelming. And it has to be said, the performance of “Fire Eye’d Boy” was about as good as you could expect – Andrew Whiteman on particularly fine form, but the song itself defines the mark 5/10.
Maybe I’m just a bit jaded after seeing them a bunch of times. When you first see them, they are a hugely thrillsome band. Three guitars! Loads of vocalists! Suavity! Horns! And as I already said, when in full flow on one of their good songs, like “7/4 (Shoreline)”, they are untouchable. They move like a massive motorik beast, utterly compelling. “Cause = Time” started a bit dull but soon sparked into life. They are also charming hosts. Kevin Drew in particular seems like a man who thrives on stage, shooting the breeze with us, telling us how much he loves Tortoise and how huge an influence they were on him and Brendon (Canning) – songs like “KC Accidental” and “Tortoise Jam/Late Nineties Bedroom Rock for the Missionaries” make much more sense once you know that – and generally does everything to make us enjoy ourselves.
Part of that enjoyment was bringing on Johnny Marr’s son to play on “Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl” (he seemed to have some of his dad’s talent, you know) and to grab a guy from the crowd to hold the lyric sheet to “Churches Under The Stairs”. The poor chap did seem a little embarrassed by the whole thing, but he got a huge hug from Kevin at the end, and the whole thing made everyone go “Ahhh!” 3 And the little pre-encore of “Lovers Spit”, mostly played solo, was a lovely moment, once the people at the back shut the fuck up4. The rest of the band provide sterling backup, with the Apostle Of Hustle himself Andrew Whiteman looking particularly dapper (and disturbingly like my mate Suave), Brendan his usual avuncular self, and the rest merrily swapping instruments and generally looking like they love the whole thing. Except Lisa Lobsinger, who still doesn’t look any more comfortable than on her first gig in London with them, five long years ago. Feist or Emily Haines, she ain’t. Come on, love, cheer up, you’re in BSS for God’s sake.
And good too to hear some obscurities (relatively) such as the aforementioned “Late Nineties…” and “Churches…”, and the great “Major Label Debut”, in full chaos mode, and finding that “All to All” definitely stands alongside their best material. So maybe I am just being a bit fussy, and that I need to forget BSS as being The Band That Did The Best Album Of The Naughties And Not Much Else, and redefine them as A Great Band You Should Go And See (And Forget The Slightly Boring Bits). Because in full flow, those massed guitars and everything, that wonderful baroque groove they have, is damn fine, and you wouldn’t change that for the world.
Still have no idea what they are on about, though.
1 Get with the program, daddio!
2 Go and look, then come back and tell me that’s not the most clever album title ever. Go on, I dare you.
3 And weirdly, he got on the tube and sat next to us at Earls Court, then got off at the same stop. Small world.
4 I must admit, I did have a bit of a go at someone for being an asshole. To her friend, if she is reading this, thank you very much for helping. You restored my faith in Canadylandians.