As I walked out of the Empty Bottle the other night, I was faced with the conundrum of trying to describe the indescribable. This is not to say that post-rock band Tortoise’s set was the greatest show ever, but rather it was one of the most pleasantly baffling I’ve experienced in some time. In theory, the music of the veteran Chicago-based quintet should not “work.” Listening to Tortoise is like spinning three divergent records simultaneously, for example Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans. It’s one part out-jazz, one part progressive rock and five parts creative combustion. Tortoise’s last release was 2009’s Beacons of Ancestorship and their tour schedule has been limited lately. Nevertheless, an appreciative audience was glad to see the band come out from under its shell for one explosive hometown show.

I knew I was in for a quirky concert the second I walked into the Empty Bottle and saw the stage setup. Two drum kits faced one another at the front of the stage. Numerous synthesizers and guitars were strung about, and a vibraphone was conspicuously stationed off to the side. The five musicians that comprise the band (Dan Bitney, John McEntire, John Herndon, Jeff Parker and Doug McCombs) are all musical chameleons, switching out instruments in between (and sometimes during) songs more swiftly than politicians changing policy positions.

This versatility extends beyond just the instrumentation. The band adroitly moves betwixt and between so many styles of music that the result is often an all-out assault on the senses. Quentin Tarantino soundtrack-like surf guitars are juxtaposed with Latin-influenced grooves. Alien synths straddle complex polyrhythms mathier than pure math rock. There’s a concurrent spirit of jazz virtuosity and pop melodicism.

The Empty Bottle show represented the different stages of the band’s career, with tunes chosen from each of the group’s six LPs. Tortoise’s catalog is varied and extensive enough that it made for a pleasurably unpredictable night. From the Pat Metheny-inspired guitar solos of “Blackjack” to the funky disco of “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” to the relentless double-drums of “Magnet Pulls Through,” the fans waited in eager anticipation between each tune to see where the band would take things. The perpetual energy on stage worked its way into the crowd, with the concertgoers bobbing along to the crazy, complex rhythms and some even trying to dance in the cramped space.

It seems a little silly for me to say the show made me nostalgic, for I wasn’t even aware of Tortoise’s existence when they reached their peak of artistic and critical success in the mid to late ‘90s. But, I must admit that I was filled with a vague feeling that something is missing from the indie scene today. It’s not that we need more post-rock in our lives. It’s that we need more virtuosic, adventurous musicians who, despite their mad chops on their instruments, have the ability to connect with an audience through the all-powerful forces of melody and groove. Tortoise taught the audience that music can be both cerebral and emotional. I’m glad I was there to learn the lesson.

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