Published Apr 29, 2016One could hardly pick a better one-two post-rock punch than Phil Manley's Life Coach and the legendary Tortoise. The collective pedigree of these long time Thrill Jockey artists is immutable.
As the guitarist for Trans Am since 1990, Manley has been as much at the forefront of the proggy post genre as Tortoise was, and with a more consistent discography to boot. Trans Am's recordings never received the same accolades as Tortoise, though, and there may be a reason why.
The duo of Manley and former Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore hit the Imperial's stage first last night (April 28), and set the bar high, performance-wise. It was a contrast in style as the calm, cool and collected Manley drew out epic, elongated vintage solo guitar tones, warmly layered like phyllo pastry over Theodore's drum kit devastation — both metaphorical and literal.
A spiritual successor of John Bonham, Theodore was dripping with sweat before the end of their first jam, but perspiration wouldn't be the only thing to fall this set. At one point, Theodore rocked so hard that he knocked his mixer off the stool behind him, which yanked out his earpiece, and then one of the legs on his tom-tom started giving way, bumping his knee while he pounded the kick. He eventually knocked it over as he went to retrieve a drumstick after one went flying into the darkness.
Yet, despite the unintentional yard sale, he never lost momentum, exchanging knowing nods with Manley as if to communicate telepathically. Given how in tune they were with each other, how far they propelled the feel of their music, they may very well have developed extrasensory perception.
As the headliner, Tortoise made little attempt to match the raw power that Life Coach brought before them, but that's not really their style, anyway. While Life Coach tends more towards the hard Krautrock edge of the post-rock spectrum, Tortoise walks a more cerebral line, drawing on experimental jazz fusion that goes as far out as the likes of Jaga Jazzist's jazztronica and Explosions in the Sky's well-paced instrumental rock, and they stuck to their wheelhouse here.
Although engineer extraordinaire John McEntire mostly stuck to the drums, the big white beard of Doug McCombs hung around the bass and perma-grinning Jeff Parker clung to guitar, with John Herndon and Dan Bitney filling in on synths and idiophones, the Chicago quintet swapped instruments throughout their set. Between the five of them, it's doubtful they played two songs in the same position; everyone seemed to play everything at some point, yet their sound remained astoundingly consistent, ever fluid and smouldering like magma, which was a testament to their immense and diverse skill.
Tortoise have legendary status in many circles since helping push post-rock into public consciousness in the early to mid-'90s, and it was clearly well earned last night. No rust has formed during the nearly seven-year gap between their 2009 album Beacons of Ancestorship and 2016's surprisingly vocal The Catastrophist.
Yet, you almost didn't need to see them ("almost" being an important qualifier in this sentence). Parker had a great smile and hammed it up a little, performing a mock robot dance before launching into the distorted guitar histrionics of "Shake Hands with Danger," but most of them didn't much break character. They were serious musicians, in both senses of the term. As such, even though they occasionally fielded two drummers on separate kits, Tortoise were a bit of an energy shift down from Life Coach.
However, the feeling of seeing Life Coach (or Trans Am) live doesn't easily translate to record. Manley and Theodore's 2013 album, Alphawaves, reportedly used only first takes with no revisions, but it still doesn't capture the awesome power of being there and seeing them do it, while the comforting precision and musical chairs arrangements of Tortoise does, bootlegs and studio recordings alike tickling the far corners of your headphones and igniting the imagination. In their own ways, both bands present intense experiences.