It was strange to walk into the Scala to hear fairly mainstream rock playing over the PA as The Sea and Cake's drummer John McEntire assembled his drum kit in full view of the crowd. There was no artifice or pretence, just the sight of working musicians getting on with their job.
McEntire is probably better known as a multi-instrumentalist with Tortoise as well as an acclaimed producer, although tonight he was behind the kit of the band he helped found in the early 1990s. The four piece took the stage punctually on the dot of nine pm and they delivered a career-spanning 90 minute set, which proved what a fearsomely tight unit they still are. All this was despite a line-up change for this tour, as Doug McCombs (of Tortoise and Brokeback) has joined the original members Sam Prekop, Archer Prewitt and John McEntire; a statistic which makes them into 50% Tortoise. Of course McCombs and the band go back a long time, as they all came out of the Chicago indie-rock scene which was unafraid to develop its jazz and prog-rock leanings.
They seemed in a good mood from the start, even though the enigmatic vocalist Sam Prekop preferred to stay stage right, singing slightly hunched over the mic. By contrast McEntire was pretty much spot-lit behind his kit at the back of the stage, his histrionics and facial expressions providing a distraction from the crafty musicianship on display. McCombs slotted in seamlessly and Prewitt took centre stage, although at first his warm jazzy Danelectro playing was muffled by an unusually muddy mix.
Last year's album Runner heralded a more robust, almost rocky sound, and the first four songs tonight were taken from it, and 'On and On' and the lovely 'Harps' were early highlights. Just when I thought we were going to get a set of recent material they delved back into the mid-90s for ‘Jacking the Ball’, and reminded us of their lighter, jazzier touch.
'Weekend' showed the strong electronica influences that characterised some of their earlier albums, but tonight was more about a powerful rock band at play, a fact underlined by McEntire's blistering drumming and Prewitt's guitar lines on 'Window Sills' or the pounding rhythms of 'Pacific'.
There were some more older songs towards the end of the set but my memory and notes are vague, although they finished with a great version of 'Leeora' (from 1995's The Biz). The interplay between the band members was superb and any front of house sound issues have been forgotten.
Ten years ago, the Sea and Cake were only hinting at being a rock band, as jazz and electronica influences has taken them in a different direction. Although essentially they are the same band, it is as if they have revisited those rock elements. Coupled with the fact that the musicians play so well together, that makes them into a must-see live band.