Tortoise/Cluster

Royal Festival Hall, London - 22 November 2009


"Diverse and Energising"

Moebius & Roedelius: Cluster As stated on the dsoaudio MySpace blog in the run up to tonight's event (part of the London Jazz Festival), the main draw were avant-garde Krautrockers Deiter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, aka Cluster, even though they had been allocated the supporting role to the more jazz-friendly Tortoise. I wasn't going to quibble over the billing order but had, in my own mind, already given Cluster the headline role. If Tortoise weren't up to muster then I was quite happy to leave early and still fully expected to have invested well in a ticket. However, experience just goes to prove that an open mind is always the best kind to cultivate, for by the end of the night I felt I had been more amply rewarded by Tortoise than Cluster.

That's not to suggest that Cluster were not still worthy of praise and deference - they are. Members Moebius and Roedelius have, since the early 1970s steadily explored various aspects of experimental and avant-garde ambient electronica, sometimes drifting into prog-rock territory. I'm not particularly Cluster connoisseur/aficionado, but I like what I've heard and have which is clustered (sorry!) around 1974's motorik classic Zuckerzeit. It is perhaps my limited experience of their later forays into wider exploratory long-form pieces that meant my enjoyment came up slightly short by the end of their set.

Therefore, ignorance of the focus of this evening's performance (were we simply working our way through their 2009 comeback album Qua?) hampers any significant journalist insight. Suffice it to say that the projection of what looked like the courtyard of a sun-drenched rural French vineyard which imperceptibly looped when a man walked through the fixed camera shot was a suitably mesmeric visual representation of the audio. Moebius continues to look as handsome and frankly just plain cool as ever. Roedelius on the other hand was beginning to look his 75 years, walking onto the stand with a slight limp to his gait and opting to sitting on a stool to support himself as the two of them performed.

Although the technological approach taken precluded any substantial traditional musicianship, both essentially phasing, mixing, tweaking, sampling and looping their way through their set, men of this statue have nothing to prove on that front; and I and all admirers sat and left it to the compositions themselves rather than their style of delivery to make the case for Cluster. Somewhat more abstract ambient than I was expecting, it was difficult to get a grasp on the subtleties and nuances of the tracks in a live setting. A proper sit down, listening on headphones the best solution for that. So not as compelling as I had both hoped and expected - but still a special pleasure nonetheless.

Tortoise get by with a little help from their friends ClusterI'd seen Tortoise many years ago. Or had I? I couldn't be sure - not being able to place the venue. I thought back to when I saw Mouse on Mars at the (now displaced) Embassy Rooms back in 1999 - that too was part of the London Jazz Festival. Was I confusing my memories of Mouse with those of Tortoise? No, I was sure I'd seen Tortoise before… Anyhow, zoological amnesia aside, the Chicago post-rocker collective were in town as part of a promotional tour for their latest (and superbly entitled) album Beacons of Ancestorship, released on Thrill Jockey. Pre-evening promotion promised some form of collaboration between these younger pretenders and the German royalty, and Cluster soon joined Tortoise on stage to add further knob twiddling to the sound. It came across as little more than a loosely structured jam between the two sets of artists rather than a seriously worked out jointly-authored composition. Even so it was nice to see respect, homage and collaboration passing across the Festival Hall stage. Point made, it wasn't long before Moebius and Roedelius took their final leave stage left to a respectful round of applause whilst Tortoise continued onward.

Tortoise's set, a mixture of old and new material, was a diverse and energizing highlights tour through their repertoire. Despite friends suggesting that I ought to be sympathetic to their sound, hitherto I've never been entirely persuaded by the recorded Tortoise work I've heard but tonight's performance was enough to rekindle an exploratory mind and to prompt some borrowing to take place. It may well be that the last time I was at the London Jazz Festival was when I saw Mouse on Mars a decade before, but as long as the open-minded and progressive festival programmers continue to see fit to include the likes of Cluster and Tortoise as legitimate artists for inclusion, I'll gladly part with my cash to patronise their efforts. 8/10

Rob Dyer


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