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Isotope 217 / Tortoise, the Palace, Los Angeles, 6/2/98

This evening started off much like the "Lilith Night" I attended on Saturday, with an exceptionally pleasant bowl of raisin bran. Not heaping, mind you, and not skimpy, either. Just the right balance of flakes and raisins with an exacting quantity of milk. Oh so tasty.

Just to let you know, I don't *really* think you're interested in my views on proper cereal preparation, but I just don't know what I'm going to say about this evening's show - so it's all just a big delay tactic. There's only so much I can say about cereal, though, so I guess I'll just have to get on with it, and make something up if I get into a pinch.

Isotope 217 is more or less a side project of Tortoise, with a couple of other members thrown in, kind of like a remix of Tortoise, but not really. There was a time that Tortoise was much more improvisational - supposedly their first two albums were more or less improvised into being, but I find that hard to believe, given their structure and complexity. So now that they're actually writing songs, they need some kind of free space outlet to let their juices roam.

That space would be Isotope 217 (the unstable molecule, which also happens to be the title of their sole album), though the free form nature of their work isn't at all apparent on the album, which sounds like a very straightforward jazz/funk work. Live, though, is where they let their hair down. They started off with the first song on the album, and that was the only thing I recognized in their whole set. With almost no structure whatsoever, they took off into some really crazy free-form sounds, making it up as they went along. Kind of like nailing jello to the wall, if you tried to get a fix on exactly what they were doing, you would fail miserably. In the end, it was all very interesting intellectually, but really hard to focus on.

Then they left the stage, and after like 20 minutes, most of the guys came back up and sat in exactly the same spots they had only recently occupied, but the musical language they spoke was completely different. Much more melodic, much more structured - everything they played was easily recognizable from their albums, though they occasionally threw in some experimental bits just for fun. Totally instrumental, guitar, percussion, keyboard, bass, and xylophone. Sometimes just one marimba. Sometimes dueling marimbas. And just when you thought that dueling marimbas was more thank the human mind could handle - *three* marimbas. (Unfortunately, those who left early missed this feat of derring-do.) Once again, you'd have trouble nailing them down, but not because of lack of structure - this time it would be because their sound is unique. There is no other group out there today playing music like them. They have a sound that is all their own, somewhere between jazz and rock, between improvisation and structure, between electronic and organic. And it works.

Plug for the band: Their second album "Millions now living will never die" (almost like a soundtrack to an undersea film which was never made) is probably one of my favorite albums of all time, judging by frequency of play. Recommended if you want to experiment a little bit.

Gee, I guess I had more to say than I thought. Maybe cereal's good for the brain.

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