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Published: 2003/08/14
by Jesse Jarnow

The Disco Biscuits, Amazura, Queens, NY- 8/8

NYC ROLL-TOP: We Come From The City

photos by Kate George

For a seemingly non-descript warehouse down a sketchy looking sideroad in
Queens, the Amazura actually has a fair bit of character. Half-hearted
ornate columns dot a few corners, but mostly there is an accumulation of
objects: a gloomy looking fish in a large tank at the back of the room, a
tank full of lizards behind the ticket booth, some weird wooden animals
perched above the bar and door, and plain out characters working the door
("don’t call me 'dude'," I heard one of them sternly advise a

With its warm sound system and expansive dance floor, Amazura is a perfect
space for The Disco Biscuits. In a way, the jamband scene's move towards
dance music didn't necessarily come because bands like the Biscuits and the
New Deal started playing live electronic music. It came because of
decentralization. Instead of Phish or the Dead playing in arenas, there were
more bands necessarily playing smaller clubs. Showgoing rituals became
different. It's not as big of a deal (or hassle) to go see a show in a place
like Amazura as it is to go to a summer shed. It's not any less special, per
se, just tempered.

In embracing dance music, The Disco Biscuits have capitalized on all the
best aspects of this natural shift. Even if most fans don't dance to the DJs
that the Biscuits regularly put on the bill in lieu of opening groups, the
gesture is still important, if only to maintain the idea that the band's
music is no more or less important than the DJ's. As such, when the band
took the stage immediately following a DJ, they launched into a jam as close
as possible to the DJ's tone. Drummer Sam Altman began by playing mostly his
electronic drums. And though the band succeeded in mimicking the vibe of the
DJ, their version was far less effective — at least until Altman gradually
began to integrate real drums into his rhythm. He alternated back and forth,
real snare for fake, fake snare for real, like Neil Young's one-note guitar
solo on "Cinnamon Girl" emphasizing different frettings of the same note. By
the time Altman was using his whole kit, the band sound committed and soon
dropped into the introduction of "Munchkin Invasion."

Like many of the jams in the first set, "Munchkin Invasion" was led (or, at
least, defined) by keyboardist Aron Magner, who set a lilting pastoral tone.
The jam gained urgency as it went minor and accelerated, sounding cinematic
in its absolute focus before landing gracefully into the ending of the
disco-flecked "And The Ladies." For the bulk of the first set, the band
maintained absolute focus. Each segue not only served its purpose
gracefully, but had a defining character to it, sounding like a musical
place in and of itself as opposed to a mere transition. As the "Ladies" jam
moved outwards, Magner again set the tone with a three-note descending
pattern, which the band parlayed into a rich jam that sounded remarkably
like house music (albeit without the tell-tale kick-drum throb).

The sinewy patterns gave way to the cycling groove of Marc Brownstein's "42"
which, if nothing else, plain sounds like a Disco Biscuits' song.
Each song in the band's repertoire, if it is to survive, must serve a few
purposes. One way to evaluate how good a song is to see how it functions as
a module in a sequence. The best Disco Biscuits songs allow the band to
abruptly shift moods within a longer improvisation without sounding
rhythmically (or otherwise) disjointed. "Munchkin Invasion" is a good
example of this. The band can enter in the midst of one mood, and come out
the other end having shifted into a related, though quite different, theme.
Unfortunately, "42" is not successful in this manner. The verses of the song
work well enough – dark in the way that Brownstein's "Plan B" and
"Confrontation" once were – before the band suddenly, almost inexplicably,
jumps into a positively hippie sounding mode. Practically the only way to
work through this is via a squealy guitar solo — the first break in tone
all night. Jon Gutwillig's solo screeched to a skitter while the band
regrouped and jumped back into the improv.

Out of "Bazaar Escape," from Gutwillig's Hot Air Balloon rock opera,
came perhaps the evening's finest jam. It was electronic sounding without
being electronic, long and lashed-in, with no one bandmember leading. One of
Gutwillig's great innovations as a guitar player – which is an important
part of the Biscuits' overall sound – is the way he has made his instrument
sound positively alien simply by playing mechanically clean, rigidly
articulated notes. Where most guitarists attempting to emulate electronic
music hide behind walls of effects, Gutwillig has simply used the guitar in
the most natural way possible and, except when playing squealing solos,
frequently sounds very little like anybody else.

The electric guitar has remained essentially the same instrument since its
invention. What has changed is the way people's hands move. There's no
physical reason why, say, '60s surf guitar pioneer Dick Dale couldn’t
have played like this, it's just that his fingers instinctively moved in
different ways. We type incessantly, use cell-phones, and generally live in
a push-button world. There is physical evidence that our thumbs work in a
different ways than our parents. The Disco Biscuits, when they want to,
reflect this evolution, Gutwillig's fingers churning in a relatively new

When set atop normal rock rhythms, as the band played for most of the second
set, Gutwillig's guitar sounds even more alien. Unfortunately, for the bulk
of the second set, the band sounded listless — at least compared to the
forceful music they'd made to begin the show. Their rendition of Grieg's "In
the Hall of the Mountain King" – albeit their first performance of the song – sounded flat compared to their other prog-fueled classical arrangements, a
simple reiteration of the familiar melody. During "Above The Waves" the band
played in a fairly bland hippie swing, only kicking to life during the jam
out of Altman's "Sound One."

So it goes with The Disco Biscuits, who have reached the stage in their
career where they are simply no longer breaking new ground as a band every
single night, nor even with every new song introduced into the repertoire,
though there is still plenty to discover. They dive into what they have
already done, and endlessly rearrange the elements, still looking for the
perfect combination.

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