Invisible Hits is a column in which Tyler Wilcox scours the internet for the best (and strangest) bootlegs, rarities, outtakes, and live clips.
Twenty-five years ago this week, Tortoise released their groundbreaking sophomore LP, the still-captivating Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The album, like the Chicago group itself, is closely associated with the start of the “post-rock” genre, an oft-instrumental wing of the 1990s underground that valued texture over standard songcraft, experimentation over tradition. Post-rock can be a fraught term for both musicians and listeners, suggesting a detached, overly cerebral approach. That’s not Tortoise’s M.O., however. They aren’t exactly a rock band, but they’re far from brainy dilettantes—their music has always been focused on groove, melody, and dynamic interplay. At heart, they’re a supremely fun band, wide open to all sorts of sonic possibilities. For proof, look to Tortoise’s onstage prowess—which is easy to do via band-sanctioned bootlegs on Archive.org and beyond. We offer a few career-spanning live highlights below.
The Lounge Ax in Chicago — April 13, 1992
Tortoise first emerged in the early ’90s as another creature from the animal kingdom: Mosquito. On this well-recorded audience tape, we get to hear the onstage debut of the soon-to-be Tortoise, then consisting of Doug McCombs, John Herndon, John McEntire, and Bundy K. Brown—all seasoned vets of various Chicago groups, including Gastr del Sol, Eleventh Dream Day, and Poster Children. The band was virtually all rhythm section at this point: two bassists and two drummers, though they were technically multi-instrumentalists. “One of the reasons we started the band, actually, was so we could… showcase some of the stuff that we weren’t able to do necessarily in other, more traditional projects that we’d been in,” McEntire said in Jeanette Leech’s Fearless: The Making of Post-Rock. At the Lounge Ax, much of Tortoise’s style is already in place, with electronic, dub, krautrock, and prog-rock influences evident. The impressive thing is how they make that omnivorousness feel cohesive rather than messy. The curveball here is the skeletal rendition of country-folk group Freakwater’s “Lonesome Sound” with Herndon on vocals—a rarity for the primarily instrumental group.
The Gloria Theater in Cologne — August 15, 1996
Following the release of Tortoise’s self-titled 1994 debut, Brown amicably left the band and was replaced by a ringer: David Pajo, formerly of Louisville’s legendary Slint. If this tape from the summer of ’96 is any indication, Pajo fit right in, adding a stately melodic sensibility on bass and guitar; his majestic “Glass Museum” has more than a little Morricone flavoring. Tortoise was touring behind Millions Now Living Will Never Die by this point, and thanks to a crisp soundboard mix, we can hear how they translated the album’s studio-created wizardry to the stage. Check out the version of “Djed,” Millions’ epic centerpiece. It’s shorter than on the record (only 12 minutes) but no less thrilling, as Tortoise moves masterfully from spacey ambient to motorik pulsations to Steve Reich-inspired vibraphone/marimba breakdowns. Equally good is the stretched-out “Gamera,” with McCombs adding a cosmic lap steel drift over a burbling, fluid groove.
Fabrik in Hamburg — July 23, 1998
Pajo, a dedicated wanderer, didn’t stick around for too long. But once again, Tortoise was able to find a more than worthy guitarist to step in. Jeff Parker, a longtime associate of the band, joined full-time for 1998’s TNT, bringing his exploratory, jazz-inflected chops to the already heady mix. That album was made entirely on an early version of ProTools, with the band using the cut-and-paste editing process as a creative stimulant. Despite this studio-bound approach, TNT’s songs worked marvelously in a live setting. This Hamburg radio broadcast—also featuring like-minded comrades the Chicago Underground Duo—is a wonderfully loose affair where the musicians revel in the wide-open landscapes of the songs. Tortoise would likely shudder at being referred to as a jam band, but on this recording, they definitely make it feel more like a compliment than a dig.
Park West in Chicago — May 21, 1999 (with Tom Zé)
Even as Tortoise’s popularity grew and their tours lengthened, the members still found time for extracurricular activities, both together and apart. Occasionally they’d even serve as the backing band for some very interesting collaborators. In one inspired pairing, they hooked up with Tropicália iconoclast Tom Zé for a 1999 tour of the U.S. and South America. The members of Tortoise aren’t exactly onstage dynamos, preferring to let the music do the talking, so it’s a blast to see them with someone as charismatic as Zé. This single-camera video of a Chicago gig might not be the highest quality document, but it gives a good impression of what went down. The group skillfully handles the often tricky contours of Zé’s songs, while the singer holds the audience rapt with his eccentric dance moves and irresistible vocals. Zé seems pleased with his choice: “Tortoise land—what a dream!” he exclaims at one point.
The Barrymore Theatre in Madison — October 11, 2005 (with Daniel Lanois)
A few years later, Tortoise joined forces with another legend, producer Daniel Lanois (known for his work with U2, Bob Dylan, Brian Eno, and more), for a tour in support of Lanois’ instrumental Belladonna LP. That album leaned towards a gauzy and gorgeous sound, but onstage in Madison, Tortoise sharpened its edges. The group brings an absorbing rhythmic immediacy to the music without overwhelming Lanois’ atmospheric, gospel-tinged playing on guitar and pedal steel. On the more straightforward singer-songwriter material, the band slips into a slightly anonymous mode. But when things really click—like on a luminous, moody “Agave”— this collective achieves a glorious lift-off.
SESC Belenzinho in São Paulo — December 12, 2013
Maybe Tortoise isn’t the most theatrical of groups, but they’re still a blast to watch. Filmed in between the stellar Beacons of Ancestorship and The Catastrophist LPs, this pro-shot black and white video of a Brazil gig gives us an intimate look at the vibrant onstage rapport between these musicians as they weave an intricate web of complex polyrhythms, futuristic funk, and abstract minimalism. Like Can or Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, Tortoise doesn’t rely on solo spotlights. Rather, they’re as close to a single living organism as a band can get, moving together as one towards a shared goal that exists somewhere up the road ahead. On this night in São Paulo, that goal is achieved—and then some.
The Art Institute of Chicago — February 16, 2019
Both McEntire and Parker live on the West Coast these days, but Tortoise remains a band with deep Chicago roots. So, it’s fitting to close out with their 2019 set at the Art Institute of Chicago's Midwinter festival (co-presented by Pitchfork), which saw Tortoise performing TNT in its entirety. TNT might sound even better than it did back in 1998: the songs positively shimmer here, their arrangements bolstered by the addition of multi-instrumentalist James Elkington and a selection of brass and string players. The guys in Tortoise may barely crack a smile during the performance, but the mood is joyous—a celebration of sound. Close to 30 years after the band formed, their music still contains multitudes, transcending genre and sparking the imagination.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork