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Published: 2001/12/30
by Jesse Jarnow

‘From the Touring Desk:’ The Disco Biscuits, Recher Theater, Towson, MD- 12/27

FROM THE TOURING DESK: The Anatomy of A Segue

I-95 North

In transit to Worcester, Massachusetts

In college, I had a dweeble of a sociology professor who cited a Grateful
Dead concert he had once attended as an example of basic subcultural
reinforcement. The show, according to the prof, had been weak and sloppy. As
he was walking out of the arena, he overheard one head say to another
"mellow show, man.". Clearly, he said, these Deadheads were
rationalizing their somethingorother. It didn't occur to him that perhaps
there were benefits to a mellow show. At the same time, it didn't
occur to me that maybe my perception of a mellow show might be a sign of
boredom on some other level.

The opening night of The Disco Biscuits' holiday run – at the Recher Theater
in Towson, Maryland – was mellow. Outside the sold-out theater, stray
miracle seekers wandered about in the cold. A vendor hawked cross-scene
bumper stickers — including ones for the Biscuits, moe., The Big Wu, and
others. The theater itself, which The Biscuits had last played in April 2000
(during bassist Marc Brownstein's hiatus), was lined with light fixtures
featuring flickering faux-flames made of cray paper. At first, the no
reentry rule seemed irrelevant. Who the hell would wanna go back into the
cold, anyway? By the time the band went on, steam rolled off the crowd.

The band seemed to have a hard time finding their groove in the first set – mellow, man – with a distinctly lackluster combination of
Vassillios > I-Man to open. During Vassillios, the PA crackled
out, a problem that would rear its head at a crucial point later in the set,
during the peak of the Mindless Dribble jam. But. yes, the set was
mellow. My professor's point was precisely that there was a certain kind of
language (involving some degree of cultish reinforcement) involved. It makes
sense. The Disco Biscuits' music – as well the music of many other jambands – takes a large degree of commitment to really listen to.

Much of The Biscuits' shtick precisely involves this. The group's last two
appearances at the Recher highlighted this strain in their music. The former
appearance, in October of 1999, has held up as perhaps the most complicated
example of the band's setlist tomfoolery. Known affectionately among fans as
"The Spagopera", the show deconstructed the song Spaga into something
like ten different parts, spreading them across the show and using them
modularly as points of transitions. A perpetual question, of course, is
whether or not a show like The Spagopera will make any sense to somebody who
has never heard the band before.

On a slightly lesser level, this problem arises at nearly every show, with
song combinations that – on one hand – are grail-like for hardcore fans, but
probably a might confusing for those who don't know the material. At the
Recher, for example, the band closed the first set with its strongest piece
of music — a two-song back-and-forth of Mindless Dribble > Hot Air
Balloon > Mindless Dribble > Hot Air Balloon. In theory, the strength of
the combination should come from the fact that both songs are interesting
pieces of music. In practice, at least for Biscuits' fans, the strength came
in the symbolism.

Each song represented a series of associations – cues, almost – that the
very combination of the songs triggered. It is the kind of evocation that is
precisely the same on paper — each song has a specific meaning, and a new
meaning becomes apparent, the same way that a fresh combination of words
will. This theoretical combination of words, then, lays the blueprint for
what the jam should sound like. It is here that it is up to the band to live
up to the implied meaning.

In practice, though, this isn't always the case. Parts of the Mindless
Dribble > Hot Air Balloon > Mindless Dribble > Hot Air Balloon – such as
the transition from the Dribble ending to the Hot Air Balloon
ending – seemed to perfectly predictable in their execution. Other parts,
however, created music that was far greater than the sum of its parts. As it
became apparent first Hot Air Balloon was segueing into
Dribble, there was a moment when the band veered into a high energy
jam that didn't quite belong to either number. The excitement of this
creation was likely objectively palpable, but doubly exciting for those who
understood where the piece of music emerged from, precisely because it was
the successful elucidation of a wonderful formula.

For many bands, the very principle of a segue is that it should sound
natural and unforced — spontaneous, in other words. There are some groups
who never plan segues (or even setlists). The Grateful Dead, for example,
were famous for this. Inserting question marks into setlists was a perfectly
integrated part of moe.'s aesthetic for a time. The Disco Biscuits' notion
of a transition is very different, more about the difference between the
theoreticals of the setlist and the exactitude of performance.

No more was this highlighted than when the PA crapped out as the band
attempted to charge into the final verse of Dribble. Later, it was
determined that the reason the PA shut off was due to a cross-wiring of the
smoke detector and the onstage electrical system — the activation of the
former causing the deactivation of the latter. At the time, of course, it
just sucked. The band succeeded on the third attempt. As the song wound to a
close, they seemed unsure whether or not they wanted to plow into the
obviously planned transition back to the Hot Air Balloon — with
three of the four band members (the exception being keyboardist Aron Magner)
stopping altogether. Quickly, though, the band recovered and executed a deft
(if expected) movement to the song's peak.

This comprehension, though, only comes with knowing something about The
Biscuits' language — that aforementioned commitment to a band that leads
one to a fairly instinctual understanding of just what the hell is going on.
Paradoxically enough, it is precisely the same kind of nearly
all-encompassing commitment required to play certain kinds of music – such as punk or reggae – and precisely why jambands usually utterly fail
when they attempt such genre transgressions. After the utter fusion of songs
as Hot Air Balloon segued into Dribble, the band settled down
into a brief dub excursion. While this certainly was the deepest groove the
band has played in a while, it was still pretty darned pansy compared to
actual dub. The strength of the Biscuits' dub came simply in its placement,
as it crashed and gnashed with the craziness of the Dribble ending.

If jambands are free to carelessly adopt genres, appreciating their
aesthetics without completely devoting their lives to them, does this allow
for fans to be able to similarly adopt bands within the genre – or even the
genre as a whole – the same way that he might be able to appreciate a pop
band – or pop song – as a self-contained unit with everything on the table
from the get-go? The initial answer – at least as far as The Biscuits' go – might be a hearty "hell no", but even that seems to be changing. The band's
fascination with setlist ridiculousness certainly peaked with the Spagopera,
and – in recent months – the music has made a decisive move towards
accessible prettiness, a style of playing which was highlighted throughout
the second set's quietly methodical renditions of Floodlights, Basis For
A Day and Little Shimmy In A Conga Line.

The middle of these tunes, Basis, was especially workmen like in its
execution. While they weren't necessarily placed in the midst of intense
setlist manipulations, the choice to play Basis, Shimmy, and
Dribble – decidedly A-list songs, all of them, usually saved for
higher impact gigs – on the warm-up night of the run spoke curiously about
what might occur over the next few evenings. And we drive.

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