Daniel Lanois and Tortoise live! 10-13-2005

Another flip phone photo, sorry

What an interesting idea. Pair one group that makes albums that sound like soundtracks with a guy that actually creates soundtracks, and viola! An evening filled with music that sounded like soundtracks.

I have had a long-standing preference for instrumental music, tracing back to the B-side of an Andy Taylor 45 in my youth. Some disposable rock-ish A-side from a movie did not stick with me. It was that solo instrumental voice, that freedom from the task of ascribing meaning to or interpreting lyrics. Music as sound. 

Soundtrack music appealed to me for some of the same superficial reasons that jazz holds my interest so completely. The mood set by soundtrack music was often more profound that the music with words, to these ears.

Putting two of these together gets us to another personal milestone: Lily was Here. This was a film whose soundtrack produced a sizable hit as played by Dave Stewart and Candy Dulfer. Soundtrack music and jazz. Instrumental. Moody. Solos. Big, grown-up impact on my 6th & 7th grade ears. Then there were dad’s Pink Floyd tapes. All

Granted, not all of the music I place in this category even has a movie. It gives me the rare chance to roll out the cliché of “soundtrack music without a movie.” I think I’ll go with that. Fast forward >> to 10-12-05 at the Fine Line Music Café in Minneapolis. Chicago’s favorite sons Tortoise opened for Daniel Lanois, who was, paradoxically, backed by members of Tortoise.

The set-up on stage is present as it was when I saw them a couple of years ago at First Ave: two ‘classic Bonham’ drum kits, one real vibraphone and one MIDI, four amps for the two basses and two guitars, and a set of keyboards.

They hit the stage with the opening salvo to which I can only refer to as “the first song on side A or B on the Standards LP.” (Being the clever folks they are, you are only able to determine which side of the LP is which via the the suffix of the matrix number stamped in the dead wax. The song titles themselves are equally enigmatic.) This piece on LP and live reminds me, in its first section, of some heavy Sun Ra thing, with everyone playing a crashing, cacophonous rubato melody. It settles into a groove after a while. They do that groove well. It is no JB’s or Meters’ groove; more of a krautrock / motorik via dub groove. It is a groove nonetheless. I ain’t complainin’.

They played half of the set with tunes I am not familiar with, and the other half I am familiar with but only able to reference as ‘side A or B, cut 1’ and ‘side A or B, cut two.’ Coincidentally, these are all of the cuts I love from that LP.

As a jazz fan, I am no stranger to the notion of ‘multi-instrumenalist.’ Tenor players double on flute or clarinet, drummers are vibraphone players, etc. These cats, however, acted like the concert was a game of musical chairs. Everyone doubled if not tripled. Everyone played some percussion. To invoke the name of Sun Ra again, a relevant quote came to mind — on the back of the Space is the Place CD reissue, this quixotic gem appears: “As all Marines are riflemen, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists.” Hmm… Sometimes the two drummers played together [no easy feat, done properly]. Other times one could see that there were two bass players operating within the same song. It makes for some interesting possibilities, some of which they mined that night.

Daniel Lanois came out to the stage after a brief intermission. The guitar player / producer extraordinaire was backed in performance from anywhere between zero and all of the Tortoise collective. His set was more of the moody textural business heard on his real soundtracks and soundtrack like albums. His gear consisted of a gold Les Paul, an old pedal steel, a Vox 2×12 combo amp, and a set of effects pedals.

Perhaps most interesting was his final piece of equipment — an octave of bass pedals as you would see under an organ. These were the bottom-most octave, as when he played, the sound was felt as much as heard — a neat effect for this kind of music. The man plays without a pick. He does some traditional fingerstyle picking in addition to picking up and down with the thumb and finger respectively. He did the thing with his so vigourously as to open a wound on it, causing blood to show up on various parts of the Les Paul. Not a serious wound, but enough for people to notice it form the front. He used no fingerpicks on the pedal steel, either. Speaking of the pedal steel, it was a delight to see the device played in such close proximity. I stood there trying to figure out the relationship between the pedals and harmonic shifts. No luck. Great sound on it through the Vox and volume pedal.

One of the highlights of the new album Belladonna, is the track titled “Frozen.” It was done in a trio live, as on record. It’s a great little moody dub-flavored thing. This was where I first noticed how nervous the Tortoise folk were in playing with Lanois. They were loose in there own, well rehearsed set, but when playing these arrangements (which Lanois said were largely created on the go) they seemed at least more … alert to the whole of the situation. During “Frozen,” as Lanois was making the pedal steel sing with the bar in his left hand, he motioned to the drummer (who was watching him like Count Basie was watched) to ‘give him more.’ Herndon, the drummer, obliged, turned up the heat, and prodded everyone to take the tune to a higher level.

That was the story of the evening. Lanois send the band packing for a couple of solo interludes and some songs. In fine voice, he sang songs of his that folks called out. Very nice. So there it is. We have complicated the conundrum / cliché of the “soundtrack without a movie” by having it performed live. All the better, I say.