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Published: 2002/01/02
by Jesse Jarnow

‘From the Touring Desk:’ The Disco Biscuits, The Electric Factory, Philadelphia, PA- 12/30 & 12/31

FROM THE TOURING DESK: As Big As The Sky

A commonly heard statement about improvisation is that "anything can
happen". This is true enough, but only to a certain degree. It is still not
possible for, say, a herd of cows to spontaneously materialize on the floor
of the venue, charge in a northerly direction for precisely
thirteen-and-one-half feet, and combust, leaving only a thin layer of steaky
soot on the ground as the only evidence of their existence. The range of
possibilities is inherently finite, which obviously isn't to say overly
limited. This is precisely what the idea of the performative spectacle
attempts to transcend, but often only clumsily highlights.

What will likely be remembered, or at least duly reported by the
JamBands.com news team, about The Disco Biscuits' New Year's Eve show at the
Electric Factory is that they staged a series of choreographed battles
between the likes of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, and
Superman, all while playing arrangements of John Williams' famously
bombastic scores. This is unfortunate, because the band's stunt was almost
unspeakably lame and frustratingly pedestrian. What will likely not be
remarked upon in the news section, however, is the set of amazing
improvisation that followed — music that was its own occasion for
existence.

In these strange days, where music is often written off as a commodity – and, therefore, merely escapist – the most beautiful thing a performance (or
recording) of music can do is to become the most immediately interesting
corner of the universe. At those moments, it's no longer a question of
escapism, because the place where the events are taking place is just as
real as anywhere else in the world. It's not so much a matter of "anything
can happen", but the fact that what is happening rules everything
else out. These are the stakes that The Disco Biscuits are playing for. They
are high ones, no doubt, and more than a little capable of producing sheer
and obvious pretension. But, hell, better that than another good time party
band — at least for art's sake.

The Electric Factory is, in some ways, a piece of shit venue. It's big and
cold. Security often seemed to go over the bounds of logical or ethical
acceptability, literally pulling hapless heads aside outside and threatening
to prevent them from attending the show for no other reason than because
they stopped to talk to their friends who happened to be waiting on line.
And – phew – the fucking line. Due to exceedingly poor organization
on the venue's part, hundreds of people were forced to wait in a non-moving
line for two hours in sub-zero temperatures in order to pick up their
tickets.

By the time I made it to the door on the 30th, my hands were so frozen that
I could barely use them to empty my pockets for the security probe. It was
the kind of security team that made me want to stuff my pockets with
tampons, condoms, and other incongrous and vaguely offensive items. "What is
this?" the man asked, feeling a small lump in one of my lower pant pockets.

"Uh, I'm not even sure." I fished down into the pocket and pulled out a pen.
"Oh," I said. "It's just a pen." I put it back in my pocket. The security
guard looked shocked.

"You can't bring that in there."

"Excuse me?"

"No pens are allowed."

"Bullshit."

"You can't bring it in."

"Yes I can." And I did.

Facist policies aside, not being allowed to have a pen inside a show struck
me as similar to the method a friend of mine employs during home-based
psychedelic experiences: covering all the clocks in the house with draped
towels. The idea is to remove a frame of reference to the outside world. I
don't think that the Electric Factory's intentions were nearly as poetic as
all that, but that was the effect — the result of a clash between the
interests of two different streams of thought. After all, sometimes a
hastily scrawled setlist is all one can cling to.

The music on the 30th never quite made it, except for a stray moment here
and there. Some of the song selections seemed simply perfunctory — "here's
the Magellan of the run, because we're obliged to play it". On
December 30th, The Disco Biscuits merely seemed like a rock and roll band,
with Jon Gutwillig slashing slicing leads that veered into, of all places,
sonic spaces often reserved for southern rockers, including one downright
Allmans-y jam in Shem-Rah Boo that bordered on Jessica. It was
all well and good, sure, but it was not by any stretch of the imagination
essential music — certainly not in the way the band made music on
the 31st.

Traditionally, the band's choice of their centerpiece songs on New Year's
are songs that somehow embody the musical advances of the previous year.
These songs, placed in context, also highlight a very specific progression
in Jon Gutwillig's development as a songwriter, as well as a deep connection
to why The Disco Biscuits' are so apt at creating music that feels (and is)
meaningful.

The main guitar riff from Helicopters – written in 1997, debuted in
1998, and played in the now traditional post-midnight slot this year – is
propulsive, to say the least, folding itself in half and doubling in speed.
Addictive, really. It's a hard one to stop drumming in spare moments. The
figure launches the band into the verse, though the frenzied momentum
doesn't necessarily remain during the verse. House Dog Party Favor,
premiered in 1999, extended the rhythmic weirdness to the verses of the
songs (ditto for Mindless Dribble, which came to fruition in 1999).
From the class of 2000, Munchkin Invasion contained possibly the
catchiest rhythm lick yet, and Hope enclosed a transition section
which highlighted ridiculous complex linear rhythms. Each batch of songs
represented measurable advances in the band's songwriting, arranging, and
musical communication.

When Save The Robots was debuted in March of 2001, it was something
of a tangled mess. By April, the band had set it aside, marked for
retooling. It stayed in the shed until New Year's, where it reemerged,
seguing out of a third set sequence of an inverted rendition of
Confrontation. It, too, represents the next level of rhythmic
composition, though the song still feels as if it has a ways to go. One of
the middle sections, unfortunately, still sounds far too close to the bridge
to Spinal Tap's Rock and Roll Creation for comfort. Nonetheless, the
song is the next step, simply because it attempts to fuse a series of crazy
rhythmic progressions into a nearly melodic whole, creating a momentum that
does not abide, leading and enveloping the entire piece.

The idea of a full-on rhythmic force in improvisation is one that is
encompassing. It is required, for example, that the band play the band play
the introduction to Mindless Dribble or Munchkin Invasion with
such force that it is impossible to imagine any other thing – musical or
otherwise – that is more interesting than what he is experiencing at that
precise moment. All too often, bands offer up improvisation that seems to
say "this is one version of the way the song can go". Pish-posh. That is
post-modern wishy-washiness. Fuck it. It is that attitude that leads to
terminal irrelevance. Save The Robots (and Helicopters and
Dribble and…) are attempts to build up large enough heads of
rhythmic steam to keep the music germane.

During the band's northwest Halloween run, they revived an experiment begun
on New Year's Eve 1999 when they created a spontaneous score for the
Japanimation classic "Akira". During the set, the band found a synchronocity
that focused their music to a hot core. On Halloween 2001, the band
performed a not-entirely-successful score to Disney's "Alice In Wonderland".
The next three nights saw improvisations to "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie
Brown", "Koyaanisqatssi", and "Run, Lola, Run".

The music produced at those shows highlighted a kind of improvisation that
the band was becoming increasingly adept at — cinematic jamming. During the
films, the group would react to the action that appeared on the screen. If a
scene changed, so did the score. All of this playing was tied together by a
rhythmic element, and a profound sense of intention that made the music seem
absolutely necessary and natural. This quality transferred over to the
tapes. They were playing what they were playing for a specific reason. Like
all techniques, it is one that was assimilated into the band's normal
playing.

The advertising propaganda put out for the New Year's show promised an
audio-visual spectacle. Entering the Electric Factory on the 31st and
noticing that the band's entire stage set-up was draped in white sheets, one
could only hope. When the band took the stage, dressed entirely in white
suits (with Jon Gutwillig looking across between a Southern gentleman and a
supervillian in a long white labcoat and white tie), it seemed that
something big was inevitable. Early on in the show, it became obvious that
the band and their set-up were functioning as a clean, white screen for the
light show. It was incredibly beautiful.

When the disasterously String Cheese-like shit went down at midnight, hopes
began to rapidly fade. Later, a friend accused me of being "fixated on the
past", when I wished that the band had attempted some kind of film score —
or, at least, an extension of that aestethic, for their New Year's prank.
Instead, they chose to continue a theme that began with the equally weak
mascot battle staged at the Bisco Knights festival. Throughout the Halloween
run, besides the film scores, the band experimented with myriad combinations
of projections, integrating films with the light show — the creation of
something entirely new.

To be fair, the band played with various lighting effects throughout the
second and third sets — including a completely gorgeous disco ball descent,
eclipse, and reascent. The band, in their way, scored the proceedings. In
the end, it was nearly the music alone that carried the night. And maybe
that's all that's ever left.

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