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concertpic flag US - Illinois - Full Moon 73 - 09/21/02

Thrill Jockey 10th Anniversary
Hackney Ocean, London, UK, 15.11.02

I am sure any music fan goes through the occasional period of severe, crippling doubt about the future of music. For me, there is very little at the moment that gets me really excited. The last Flaming Lips album, although initially a gorgeous feast, no longer gets played; the new Yo La Tengo, although excellent, only suits a particular mood. The only band that I have replayed continuously of late is The Sea and Cake, in eager anticipation of this Thrill Jockey one-day festival to celebrate 10 years of the label.

Thrill Jockey has something of a reputation for producing humourless post-rock and jazz, each band sharing members with several other bands. It's the kind of cool Chicago clique that Jim O'Rourke fled for the thrill of New York and the skewed danger of Sonic Youth. The afternoon's entertainment was predictable in terms of tone, but as far as enjoying what was on offer I found myself pleasantly surprised on many occasions.

The main problem with any event like this is maintaining your level of interest in the music, not falling asleep, not assaulting the bar staff in response to their vastly inflated drink prices, and choosing the music to miss as you make an essential trip to Tesco for scotch eggs and baguettes. Twelve hours of music?! No comfortable place to sit down?!

Although the DJs were largely shite, welcome relief came from the Thrill Jockey documentary projected on the screen above the stage, where various musical luminaries talked to a camera about their epiphanies. I was delighted to see Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley from Yo La Tengo chatting about musical accidents and 45 singles, and Sam Prekop sitting in his apartment amidst his painting equipment. For the most part the monologues were enlightening and funny, and made engrossing viewing. After all, don't we all talk about our favourite records with our friends?

First up on stage was Chicago Underground Duo - cornettist Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor - augmented by Tortoise's Jeff Parker on guitar and a double bass player whose name I didn't catch. So a quartet then. Their exploratory, jazzy sound keep me levitated for minutes at a time, delighted at the juxtapositions of the present moment and excited in expectation of future developments. Some of the transitions were simply breathtaking, as storms of sound erupted into free jazz chaos, before slowly breaking free into melodic rushes again. I don't know any of the names of the songs, but I reckon I may have to invest in one of their CDs in the future if they can capture any of their live alchemy on disc.

Brokeback live were the same personnel as Chicago Underground Duo, minus Jeff Parker, and with Doug McCombs on guitar (for he, essentially, is Brokeback). His last album had Yo La Tengo's James McNew on organ, so I'm surprised I didn't pick it up on the offchance it was any good, and I'm still yet to hear Brokeback on record. They were disappointing on this outing though, McCombs' guitar sounding tentative and shy amidst the comparative confidence of the rest of the players. At times they just sounded lost, jamming with nowhere to go.

After that letdown me and a friend got lost ourselves, hitting the streets of Hackney for a much-needed food break. On our return we caught Eleventh Dream Day - decent indie rock three-piece with big electric guitar sound - and Trans Am - overweight old rock sounds with blistering rhythm section and squishy synths. We half-watched Bobby Conn but I am too disturbed by him to pass any worthwhile comment. Is he serious? Christ - poor guy. Is he joking? Christ, poor guy, he has to do THAT as a joke?!

But onward to the real deal: The Sea and Cake. These guys are why I'm here, and I'd almost pay 20 to see them on their own. Wow! They look like lovely blokes in the flesh: Sam Prekop swaggering around, fag in mouth, pretending he's not nervous when he's no doubt crapping himself; Eric Claridge, man mountain, keeping quiet and upright; John McEntire, magisterially setting up his kit; and Archer Prewitt (along with Tobin Sprout, joint winner of the all-time 'Best Name In Rock' competition) fiddling with his effects pedals in the dark. They kicked off their teasingly short set with a new song that simply passed me by. It sounded like The Sea and Cake but didn't have the precise melodic interplay and rhythmic clip that they have on record - I feared the worst. Sam said to Archer 'That was terrible'. I feared a bad mix was going to ruin the gig. Thankfully my fears were dispelled as they launched into several absolute blinders, "Afternoon Speaker", " Jacking the Ball", "The Argument" and "Parasol" (sigh) in particular. And "The Biz" and "Leeora" have sent me back to the album The Biz to realise that it's essential listening after all. Such great songs, such lovely guitar lines, such crisp drums, such a great voice. An enjoyable performance despite the slightly muddy mix, and it leaves me incredibly impatient for the release of One Bedroom in early 2003.

To be honest I wasn't sure what to expect from Tortoise. Standards, despite getting most critics in a froth, really didn't do it for me. Apart from the absolute transcendent majesty of Seneca, nothing else really kept me coming back for more. However, Standards live is stunning, and shows how these songs formed in the first place, intricately woven from great individual performances. For let us never forget that each member of Tortoise is a staggering musician, playing three or more instruments with aplomb. The dual drumming lifted the roof off; the vibraphone sent out pretty waves of spine-tingling notes; and the rest of the sound was a glorious, beautiful mess, designed but free, created but always in the process of being disassembled in favour of new sonic shapes. The Sea and Cake have an absolutely genius way with a jazz-pop song: that is their magic. With Tortoise the magic comes from constant, dizzying transformation, taking as many genres as you know and warping them into new shapes. They inspire gibbering confusion when you attempt to write about them - what exactly IS this music. To be honest I'm not that convinced I like their new music that much, but I recognise that they are doing something COMPLETELY NEW, and for that I salute them. The bastards didn't play a single thing off Millions Now Living... and I still had a great time. Bastards.

Copyright © 2002 Tim Clarke e-mail address

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