Tortoise is a band to whom I have listened for what feels like forever, although I have done so in fits and starts. First I made enthusiastic, frequent-enough attempts to immerse myself in their catalogue, to let it wash over me for a week or so at a time, beach-like, with the hope of returning to the real world like someone back from vacation with shells braided into their hair, eager to both invite and answer questions. Then, alternately, years will go by during which I only listen to the 1998 album TNT on a biannual basis for some truly random reasons, like a New Yorker article will mention H.L. Mencken, reminding me of the song "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men."  

Over this nearly twenty-year period of well-meaning interest followed by semi-forgetfulness, I have come to think about Tortoise in the same way that I regard the US Senate. They are an institution--one for which I'm grateful and to which I grant a deep respect, even when I can't say that I love everything they've done nor that I know a whole lot about most of the members. Even so, I have somehow failed to ever see Tortoise play live. Thus, for the purposes of this review, I have nothing against which to compare them, performance-wise, despite their quarter-century career, and I'm also going to be somewhere between shaky and flaky when it comes to song titles. 

The concert was part of the Art of Live Festival which took place throughout the weekend at the Old Rock House, the Ready Room, and Off Broadway. On Thursday night, with an ice storm waiting in the wings, the St. Louis three-piece Hope & Therapy opened the show at the Old Rock House, constructing a scaffold of tight, angular rhythms over which the voice of singer and keyboardist Hope Gaines ascended to almost Icarus-level heights. Gaines demonstrated a compelling confidence and poise, but there were an equal number of moments when the sheer sonic quality of her singing was almost too pure and ultimately at odds with the kind of mutual identification that I'm looking for in a live performance: a shared sense that we're here, together, because it fills some kind of lack, absence, or deficiency; that we come together not as masters, but as misfits. 

Tortoise, too, risked being too good, especially given the heightened sense of focus and restraint on last year's album The Catastrophist, from which they drew liberally for their set. Throughout the night, I found myself impressed with them in the same way that I am when I see a time-lapse video of a car being built in a factory. I marveled at the efficiency with which their complex tonal landscapes took shape--at musical relationships so refined and skills so in sync that no member ever seemed to look to another for a cue or a count. 

At the same time, perhaps precisely because Tortoise operates within no established genre or movement, a sense of uncertainty may always be at the core of my relationship to them. Even on those tracks into which they seem absolutely locked, the fact that their rules are solely their own allows room for anything to happen. This was the case with the synth-heavy "Gesceap," a standout from The Catastrophist and one of at least a few songs on the album that remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog in the best possible way. That Tortoise's performance was less like an off-the-rails adventure and more like a guided tour was to their credit. For artists to whom an audience would give a hall pass for going rogue without a moment's hesitation, the band's willingness to play it cool and stick to the script is a testament to the script itself. Their career-spanning set felt neither forced, flat or fan-service. Rather, the seamlessness with which the songs interlocked recalled to me again the idea of a manufacturing infrastructure or better yet a kind of supply chain--one which they've developed over time and which needs only minimal maintenance. (The Castrophist, for example, came after a nearly seven-year gap between albums.) 

I worry that so much imagery of industry and automation here implies that Tortoise came across as mechanical, or that they weren't playing music so much as plying a trade. That was not at all the case. I found myself unexpectedly swaying to the music, giving way to it. I lost track of time without ever forgetting it was there. For five almost exorbitantly skilled musicians--switching between instrument duties, frequently deploying two drum kits, engaging as many machines as you could imagine onstage--they remained deeply committed to the audience, listening as much to each other as they did to our own rapt silence. 

 

Click below to see more of Doug Tull's photos of the evening's performances.

Tortoise (with Hope & Therapy) at the Old Rock House, January 12, 2016

 

 

For all of the putative inscrutability of his lyrics, the origami-like assembly of his rhymes, and the dense, otherworldly terrain of his beats, it's often just as easy to be hit by a kind of radical honesty in the music of Aesop Rock. If the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of language are--to borrow a famous line from George Herriman's Krazy Kat--the means by which we misunderstand each other, then Aesop's verbal excess is an expression of this very frustration. Part of his appeal, perhaps, is the way in which he breathlessly, almost unstoppably seeks to articulate a truth beyond that which we accept as real. If everyday language is insufficient to the task--debased and abused by those in power, those who claim to have "the best words"--then Aesop articulates a willful, insouciant intelligence. Swathed in alchemical metaphor and all-over-the-place allusion, his music is at once urgent and deeply personal. 

Well, like anything, it can be. Aesop's game is one of patience, of time. He now notoriously has the widest vocabulary in hip-hop, and the prodigiousness with which he deploys it can be daunting at first. But linger over Aesop's lines and they soon only seem too smart, only appear too protracted. The examples are too many to list here; the exegesis of even one too much work for one review. The more you look, though, you find that heartfelt, brutally candid sentiments are not the exception, but the rule. Aesop runs a revolutionary argot--one that requires work, rewards repetition, but above all sounds dope. 

There is something satisfying and immediate in his work, especially live. If the only real appeal of Aesop Rock was the promise of waiting around and wading through, then the audience for his show would only be would-be scholars like me--bespectacled and multi-degreed, with more than one dictionary in the bookmarks bar of their browser. Instead, the show was packed with a legion of young people whose attention never waned as Aesop plowed track-by-track through most of his newest album, The Impossible Kid, at Delmar Hall on Tuesday. Through a series of tracts, vignettes, and meditations, the Aesop of The Impossible Kid benefits from a unique topographical vantage--the summit of the hill of being over-the-hill. (Aesop noted at the beginning of his set that he turned 40 on this tour.) No one is immune from the feeling of getting old, but Aesop seems to have reached a signal moment in both his life and career. More than ever, we find him taking stock of his history to date--the benign regret of an artistic path not taken ("Rings"); a kind of "kids these days" incredulity over weird tattoos ("Lotta Years"); the acute loss of self that attends the loss of a loved one ("Get Out of the Car," which was the only Impossible track that he performed outside of the album's sequence, saving it for the end of his set). 

And yet, for someone who is openly aging (or rather, aging openly, since there can be a big difference), Aesop's flow hasn't suffered; even his trickiest verbal mousetraps were clear, almost conversational, in the live delivery. Pacing the stage with unapologetic enjoyment, Aesop smiled and sauntered for nearly thirty songs, including a few Hail Mary Mallon cuts (his collaboration with Rob Sonic, who also backed him for the entire set) and a handful of classic crowd-pleasers like "No Regrets" and "Daylight." For an encore, Aesop was joined by opener Homeboy Sandman for three songs from their recent Lice Two: Still Buggin' EP. But I was honestly a little bummed that they didn't include the Emily-Post-meets-urban-dictionary track "Katz" from the first installment of Lice, with its killer Emerson, Lake, and Palmer sample and surprisingly deft advice ("Cats had better learn to recognize the po in plain clothes / Cats had better not graduate to what they hate most / Cats had better shout 'i-ight' when Doug E. flip the 'ay-o'").  

Amid a throng of throng of fans who were often desperately trying (and failing) to rap along with one of their favorite rappers, I wasn't necessarily moved or touched in the same way that certain lines really get to me when I'm alone and least expecting it. I actually spent an unusual amount of time at the show being impressed by the otherwise immaterial name of the tour itself. This was the Kirby Tour, a shout-out to Aesop's kitten, whom we can imagine is back at home in Aesop's adopted city of Portland--chewing up earbuds, napping on the toaster, and generally causing the kind of mischief chronicled on the Impossible track "Kirby." (And also let's just take a moment here to give Aesop credit for filling the void that David Sedaris lamented in his essay "The Youth in Asia," which at one point wonders poignantly "why so few songs were written about cats.")

At the end of the show, the line for the merch table stretched to resemble that of a Russian bakery in a Cold War newsreel, and I saw a guy winding through the crowd who looked, to me, a lot like Aesop Rock. Beard, baseball cap, unkempt-ish. Turns out it actually was Aesop Rock. I think that his very everydayness--ability to blend in, his good-but-not-too-good lookingness--is the tails to his head, so to speak. It comes through especially in interviews, especially, just what a "person" he is. Private but not secretive; anxious but not inert; super-smart but not at all superior. 

 

It's been a rough few weeks in America with the country strongly divided and wracked with tension. If "music heals the soul," as they say, the ever-soulful JJ Grey & Mofro provided the perfect medicine to lift pre-holiday spirits at their packed Thanksgiving Eve show at the Pageant.

Historically a huge night for going out in St. Louis, the venue was already filling nicely as opener Parker Millsap took the stage. The roots rock singer/songwriter proved a well-matched pairing for Grey with his own uniquely soulful voice and blues-infused Americana style. He's even more impressive when you consider he's a mere 23 years old. With assistance from bassist (and childhood friend) Michael Rose, drummer Patrick Ryan and the incredible Daniel Foulks on violin, Millsap delivered a sold set that ranged from country twang to Zeppelin-esque rock and roll, never devoid of emotion.

As JJ Grey and Mofro stepped out, the crowd had swelled to near capacity and all seemed ready for some musical healing. The band got warmed up with an early tune, "Six Ways from Sunday" from its quintessential 2004 album, Lochloosa, featuring a funky mid-song keyboard solo from Eric Brigmond. Grey then dug into his classic soul side for "A Woman," delivering some Otis Redding-inspired crooning as Marcus Parsley and Dennis Marion replied with blaring trumpets.

Upbeat but message-heavy "Every Minute" seemed an appropriate choice as Grey emotionally belted the lyrics, "Evil deeds that we do / Screamin' from the headlines / Can't stop to read or to watch / Cause I ain't got the patience or time / To live a life of despair / To live by another man’s word / It's always been in your hands / To live a life you want while you're here."

Fan favorite "Brighter Days" brought out more of Grey's gruff and soulful vocal styling, with the audience providing assistance on the ending na, na, nas. A mid-set performance of "Lochloosa," the classic ode to Grey's North Florida roots, had him break out the harmonica backed by Brigmond's churched-up organ.

The band kept things mostly on the funkier side for the second half of the show with swampy, Southern foot stompers like "Dirtfloorcracker," "Country Ghetto," early Mofro tune "How Junior Got His Head Put Out," and the perfect pre-Thanksgiving celebration of Southern cooking, "Ho Cake." Grey preached the "gospel" of cornbread, fried chicken, sweet potato pie and collard greens before being joined by St. Louis' own Tom “Papa” Ray on harmonica. Todd Smallie, also a native of St. Louis, kept the bass funky.

Set-ender "I Believe (In Everything)" was a strong reminder of why JJ Grey & Mofro are such a joyous band to see live. While he doesn't shy away from the pain and struggles of life, Grey always brings things around to a place of positivity and gratitude that makes him one of the most honest and inspiring performers today. The audience, too, felt this gratitude and eagerly reflected it back on him.

After briefly taking leave of the stage for a break, Grey returned for an encore and to properly introduce the band, including Brigmond, Smallie, Marion and Parsley, as well as drummer Craig Barnett and new guitarist Zach Gilbert, who replaced Andrew Trube after he departed the band earlier this year. They treated the crowd to two more recent tunes -- the title tracks from the band's last two albums, "This River" and "Ol' Glory."

The nearly two-hour set still didn't feel quite long enough, and fans lingered after the band left the stage, perhaps trying to hold on just a few moments longer to the feelings of warmth and unity the band put forth before heading back out into the chilly night air.

Setlist: Six Ways From Sunday, A Woman, Every Minute, Brighter Days, What You're Looking For, Lochloosa, Dirtfloorcracker, Country Ghetto, The Sweetest Thing, How Junior Got His Head Put Out, Blackwater, Orange Blossoms,  Ho Cake (with Tom "Papa" Ray on harmonica), I Believe (In Everything). Encore: This River, Ol' Glory.

Click below to see more photos of Monica Mileur's photos of JJ Grey and Parker Milsap.

JJ Grey & Mofro (with Parker Millsap) at the Pageant, Wednesday, November 23, 2016

 

I had no idea that the bass could be such a physical instrument until I saw Stephen Crump of the Vijay Iyer Trio play the instrument at the early show at the Jazz Bistro on Wednesday night. Crump bobbed up and down and then ebbed back and forth with the jazzy rhythm. He then slumped over the giant instrument and melted into it for one of his solos.

The other two members of the trio, Vijay Iyer on piano and Marcus Gilmore on drums, though not as active as Crump, were still clearly electrified by the music as they swayed in the dim blue lights on the stage. Gilmore kept the beat with a continuous low tin beat, which never threatened to overpower the other two quieter instruments. Like Crump, Gilmore also played two solos during the set.

Vijay Iyer, the jazz pianist for whom the trio is named, undulated over the grand piano. Strong, loud, and fast at times, Iyer’s piano faded into the background at other times, sprinkling perfectly placed droplets of notes over the other two instruments.

Patrons could buy copies the New York based trio’s albums at the door. Their most recent album, Break Stuff , released in 2015, received five stars in Downbeat Magazine. Produced by Manfred Eicher, the album breaks down and recasts several of Iyer’s earlier works, bringing new life to his already eclectic work. Break Stuff was not the group’s first hit album though. The trio gained fame for their previous two albums, Accelerando, released in 2012, and Historicity, released in 2009. International critics with Downbeat and JazzTimes hailed both albums as the #1 jazz album in 2012 and 2009 respectively.

In addition to his work with the trio, pianist-composer Iyer works on solo projects and serves as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in the Department of Music at Harvard University. He also works as the director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Known as a dynamic and expansive pianist who takes musical risks, Iyer was voted Downbeat Magazine’s artist of the year in 2012, 2015, and 2016.

Gilmore, originally from Queens, New York, is the grandson of another famous drummer, Roy Haynes. Born in 1986, he joined the trio in 2003 at the age of 16. Downbeat Magazine named him their top Rising Star Drummer. In addition to drumming with the Vijay Iyer Trio, he leads his own music ensemble and has already toured with a wide array of musicians.

Originally from Memphis, bassist-composer Stephen Crump brings a bluesy element to the group, and plays both electric and acoustic bass. Crump has collaborated with many other diverse and dynamic artists and has been featured in several films. He began working with Iyer in 1999.

The set ended with a standing ovation and a message from Iyer. “We all need to work together to get through whatever is to come,” Iyer said. “And it starts with music.”

The Vijay Iyer Trio will perform at Jazz at the Bistro 7:30 and 9:30 through December 3.

 

For more of Gary Eckert's photos of the evening's performance, click the image below.

The Vijay Iyer Trio at Jazz at the Bistro, November 30, 2016


Another grey day in the cubical. No excitement. No Wonder. No stimulation. The bland, beige walls that could be lifted by a finger crush the soul like a ten ton brick, all while the world continues to spiral into insanity during the most pathetic excuse for a presidential race. I knew if I wasn't careful, my pineal gland would quickly shrivel away into sawdust under the relentless trauma. Luckily, my father bestowed unto me a great wisdom in my youth that would help preserve me through these dark days. The power of prog rock.

I was two weeks into an unprecedented Yes binge, exercising my mind with one of the greatest rock group of all times while I completed the mostly mindless work. Listening to the old favorites, as well as exploring uncharted territory, I expanded my appreciation for the pure talent and collective brilliance of the band. Front man Jon Anderson's otherworldly songwriting and heavenly vocals, Steve Howe's imaginative guitar skills, Rick Wakeman's larger than life keyboard and of course, Chris Squire's powerful bass lines. Isolated they were great, but together they were able to create some of the greatest art mankind has achieved, at moments even seemingly able to touch heaven. I delved into their long, diverse career unlike any other band.

As I absorbed a lifetime's worth of music once, then once again, I gradually grew saddened that I would never be able to see these masters perform. In my time I've managed to check off practically all of the titans of the golden age of the 60s-70s I cared to see. But as time goes on and 2016 continues to claim more and more of those titans, I knew I was born just too late to see the music that was so dear to me live. Last I heard, Jon was suffering from an illness that required a sinus operation which undoubtedly would threaten his delicate, yet powerful singing voice. But, in a curious effort to maintain the illusion of busyness in the cubical, I threw out a harmless search to see any news on the band on the ole internet. My heart jumped out of my chest and my eyes raced across the page in disbelief as they read, "Jon Anderson and the Holy Trinity of Yes Launching Tour." My excitement was multiplied uncontrollably when I noticed the article was posted just two days ago. I rocketed the mouse across the screen and pounded the keyboard to find the tour dates -- so fast and hard that the poor Macintosh couldn't keep up. I nearly wept in joy at what I found. They would be coming back once again to St. Louis, just right up the street at the Fabulous Fox Theater. In a matter of minutes, the hopeless and impossible became a reality.

"You don't know what this means..."

Jon Anderson had recovered from his ailment, and because Howe and drummer Alan White were busy touring with a different vocalist, keyboardist and bassist under the name 'Yes,' he gathered Rick Wakeman of olde and guitarist Trevor Rabin from their 80s-90's days for a World Wide tour starting in October under the name ARW. While I respect Howe as undeniable and essential part of the band, Jon was absolutely its soul, and a Yes without Jon was no Yes at all. Fans across the country and around the world would soon be seeing this 'Holy Trinity' together on stage for the first time in over a quarter of a century. All we had to do was wait a little longer -- and time seemed to stretching out a bit more each day.

"We want to try and take it to another level. But we're certainly not taking away all of the elements and the sound that the songs made." -- Rick Wakeman for Ultimate Classic Rock

Four months of fighting futility in the cubical and surviving agonizing election cycle insanity later, the day had finally come. Orange was officially the new black. Donald Trump had been elected the President of the United States, and the country was more polarized than ever. A seemingly doomed scenario faced us all as our grip loosened on the collective sanity, spinning faster and faster by the day. But for one night it didn't matter. Tonight was the night of the impossible concert. Jon Anderson was coming to town and bringing with him his music. The biggest opponent to ugly times is beauty, and I kept my compass locked towards the five story Fox sign and the beauty to come on the other side of those walls. Sitting in the cube with heavy bags under my eyes after a late night watching the race to the White House, I snuck out of the open cell early to acquire my press pass--and see how far I could take it.

I arrived just in time to collect my credentials and fade into the back of the meet and greet line; a pleasant surprise. The right place at the right time, as usual. My adrenaline rushed in excitement for a chance to meet the group. I never thought I'd see this concert, let alone meet some of the talent behind Yes. I've had a message in my head and heart for some time now for Jon; a sincere and utter appreciation on behalf of myself, my father and the World for the love and beauty he and the talent of Yes has bestowed upon us. How much of a positive influence it has been in my life, and how it continues to help me through the ugly times of life. There have been a great few who have contributed so much to this world, all of which are worthy of appreciation, but Jon and the rest are the ones throughout history that I personally wished to thank in person. Art is surely just as important to humanity as anything else. I eagerly waited in line behind the crowded few that had paid dearly for this privilege, twenty years younger than anybody else there with my camera bag. Not exactly hidden.

"I should have brought a CD to sign!" -- Yes fan

After some time of admiring the ornamental beauty of the theater's lobby, the old hippies had made it through the line and retrieved their VIP tote bags. It was the young hippy's turn to see if he could get in. The first lady I dealt with called over a manager, who then called over another manager, who then called over another lady. The typical progression. Someone had to give eventually. After going through the ranks, hopes were dashed as I was denied entry into the meet and greet. The old press pass trick that had worked so well for me so many times before had failed me. Maybe I'm getting old. It seemed I wasn't going to get that chance to relay my message but I couldn't complain. I was seeing Yes tonight.

"I think we're going backwards with this election, man." -- street hustler

Night had fallen on the Fox and the Lou was coming to life. Cars flooded the streets under the sparkling lights of Grand Avenue as the hectic workday drew to a close. The excited usher waving to the traffic in front of the theater made you feel like you were back in a different time. A simpler time without cellphones, nonstop internet and orange presidents. It was a pleasant way to set the mood as the line gradually formed outside the venue. The clock continued to spin back into the past with each step as the you wandered through and marveled at the Wonder of the old, majestically decorated movie palace. For the next few hours, what would happen on the inside of this grand concert hall would be completely separate from the outside world. A much needed break for the hippies and rock enthusiasts, young and old.

After some time of great anticipation, and following an introduction by Sweetmeat and the KSHE crew kicking off their 49th birthday bash, the months of waiting was finally over. Joined by drummer Louis Molino III and bassist Lee Pomeroy, Rabin and Wakeman made their way to the stage to a roar from the crowd. Rabin sporting a vintage militaristic style garb and Wakeman wearing his iconic flowing wizard robes. They greeted each other with a hug and huge grins, both seemingly excited and thankful to be playing on the stage together again. Their powerful guitar and keyboard opening played for a few moments before Jon finally made his way out and greeted the crowd with a youthful smile. And they began to perform their hearts out.

"The best religion is love!" -- Jon Anderson

Silhouetted by simple colors projected on curved canvas arching behind them in layers, the Trinity played a healthy selection from throughout their extensive catalogue. A nice blend of their lengthy early tracks they are renowned for with some of their more poppy tracks -- luckily for me it was more of the former. Anderson admitted he was fighting a cold, but after his voice warmed up on the first songs, his range was undisturbed. His high notes were clean and smooth, and his performance did not disappoint. Wakeman gave a commanding performance in all regards, surrounded by his mighty rig of keyboards. Some equipment from the 70s, others not even on the market yet. Most notable was his solo during "Awaken" in which he summoned a soul shaking church organ that absolutely moved every person in the room. Rabin gave the fans of the 80s Yes the powerful guitar rifts and shredding solos they were hungry for, but he also delivered on Howe's arrangements impressively. All in all, their essence remained, and each song maintained their greatness, with little live-on-stage nuances that made the show all the more special. During their touching nod to the late great Chris Squire, I was reminded of what my father once said about their music in relation to the peers of their time. "They always stayed positive." Yes is one of the most positive words out there, and the band's lyrics and vibe for the most part over the years reflected that positivity. And with recent studies from actually prove benefits of positive energy and personality, it was a welcome change from the outside world.

"People say, 'Why do you write these lyrics like that?' Because that's what happened. It just happens, you don't think about it too much." -- Jon Anderson

The goose bumps and emotions came in waves as the songs kept coming. The creeping bass line of "Long Distance Runaround," the powerful crescendo of "Heart of the Sunrise," the iconic lick from "Owner of a Lonely Heart," the heartwarming harmonies of "I've Seen All Good People." One after another. It was magical. With the first few bars of "And You and I," hearts began yearning for their second half. Wakeman's whimsical wisps on the keyboard and Jon's gentle voice were absolutely on point along with the rest of the group. My eyes welled with tears at the sights and sensations I was experiencing. Thinking about my love beside me. Thinking about my father, who would have been here if he weren't stricken with the ALS. But he got to see Yes in his and their youth, and now it was my turn. In that moment, embraced by the warmth of the familiarity and love of the very same music he and I have heard all of these years, I felt his presence.

The unforgettable night went on until the predictable yet very welcome encore of Roundabout. Before we knew it, two and a half hours had blown by and we were left with a memory and a heavy afterglow of something wonderful. The smiles smattered across peoples faces -- some from pure positivity, some from something else -- proved the undeniable feeling of togetherness was shared by all. I was incredibly thankful for the experience and I'm sure I wasn't the only one.

There was an old BBC program produced in the early 70s featuring Yes when they were in their youth. They were in their prime, and so was humanity. While creating what by some could be considered some of the greatest music of all time, Jon humbly admitted in an interview his excitement to see the music to come in the future. If the music of the love generation was so fantastic then, it was only going to get more fantastical in the future. As it should have. Sadly, as consciousness and creativity were continuously crushed over the decades to come, his prediction never quite came to fruition. The high water mark the Good Doctor spoke of was all too real. Jon's message of love and positivity gradually faded in time as we've grown more and more apart, culminating in the divide we find ourselves in today. We have all the technological toys to distract us, though. Posting to everybody how great our lives are, while we advance ourselves up our own asses until we reach the singularity. Growing away from our natural state of being and more distant from each other. From humanity. From Love. Instead, we are filling those voids with the dead echoes of a digital realm.

But if Yes can teach you anything, it's that you can't snuff out the fire of love. "They" may have bottled it up to try and sell it back to us in commercials, in iPhones, in cars -- but we can take it back if we want to. Love is the only answer; hate is the root of cancer. Don't surround yourself with yourself. See all the good people, and be one yourself. The only way out of this world of hate and corruption is a collective, conscious effort from the bottom up. The media got us into this mess, and we have to recognize that and wise up to it. We have to remember who we really are. Just because something is hopeless and impossible, doesn't mean it isn't possible. We just have to say, Yes.

Dedicated to my Dad

 

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