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Published: 2003/08/17
by Yancy Davis

The Disco Biscuits, The Nation, Washington, DC- 8/13

Nestled almost uncomfortably between two "festival" style Disco Biscuits
events (the loosely go-kart themed "Nittany 500" the two nights prior,
and "Trancemission", a weekend camping event in Trade, TN two nights
later) the standalone show at the Nation could've easily been a lackluster
throwaway show. The exhausted yet sated look in the eyes of fans that
had been in attendance for the past two nights as they cheerfully talked
about the shows was a decent indication of quality. And Trancemission,
the closest thing that Biscuits fans would get to their much beloved but
semi-annual "Camp Bisco," seemed to be more on a lot of people's minds
than the show that would be starting within minutes. In a week where
every other show they performed was or supposedly would be a senses-
altering spectacle, the concert at the Nation had the stigma of being just
that. A concert. It's fortunate for all involved then that with the
Disco Biscuits, even "just a concert" usually ends up being a spectacle in
and of itself.

The Nation, located in southeast Washington, DC, isn't terribly easy to
find as venues go, and once found it hardly seems inviting. The
surrounding neighborhood is dark and foreboding, a theme that seems to
carry over into the venue as well. A weekly "Goth Night" is prominently
advertised, and the dark and broody character of the club makes it the
most ideal spot in the District for such an affair. Security was
extremely tight. In the vast array of methods a club can use to check
for contraband, from the brief pat-down to the full-on body cavity search,
the Nation stopped just short of the latter. Yet all of these
environmental elements that could potentially work against some forms of
live music, complement the vibe and ambience of the Disco Biscuits quite
well. Their playing, even during its most vibrant and uplifting segments,
often has dark and brooding undertones, lending itself more to nighttime
performances in places like the Nation than to sunny outdoor mid-afternoon
sets. Not to disparage the latter in any way, but the band simply
seemed in their element at a place like the Nation.

Shelby Rose started the set off promptly at ten o'clock. A signature
piece in bassist Marc Brownstein's rock opera "The Chemical Warfare
Brigade," the song is both euphoric and, in the scope of the entire
storyline, tragic. When at its best, the song heavily incorporates both
of those elements into its jam. There was an audible shift between the
composed section and whatever was to come, as the band wasted no time
enveloping the crowd in their music. Guitarist Jon Gutwillig led the
initial foray from the structure of the song playing softly over the
ambient background that keyboardist Aron Magner provided. The resounding
bassline seemed simple and repetitive, and yet had an infectiousness to
it that had the collective heads of the entire room bouncing in unison.
By now the audience's full attention was on the band, obviously, yet the
intense flailing and pained stares from victims of musical overload that
generally accompany the band when at their best were not yet present.

The music built up with respectful patience after a brief directionless
period, driven indirectly by drumming powerhouse Sam Altman increasing the
tempo with panache. As the jam built, Magner stepped out finally from the
background to play an ear-tickling electronic riff to go with the thick
porno-funk now emanating from Gutwillig's guitar. Combined with an
unstoppable avalanche of bass, the climax of the song continued to build,
well beyond the expected point of release stirring up a crowd already
worked into a mild frenzy. Head-bopping gave way to dancing which turned
into outright thrashing, as the song took a turn and clearly seemed to be
leading into something.

In addition to their penchant for segueing into and out of songs with
wild abandon, much is made over the band's "inverting" of songs. For the
uninformed, an inverted song begins with the ending segment and proceeds
through a song, ending with its beginning (in many cases with an
additional song or two in between). Whether this is clever or
innovative doesn't really matter much to the casual fan. How it does
regularly affect things is that it adds a whole new level to figuring out
where the band is headed next. For every hardcore dancer at a show,
there's someone else that will giddily tell his friend what song the band
is segueing into the moment he hears a familiar note. It is this type of
fan that the Disco Biscuits skewering of their own songs so thoroughly
confounds; it's hard enough guessing what's next with over a hundred song
possibilities, without complicating things by adding each song's ending or
middle segment to the list of choices. Perhaps the band even plays at
times with this fan in mind. Fans vocally guessed Crickets, Basis for a
Day, Munchkin Invasion and/or Save the Robots, and probably more that
weren't heard, and while all the guesses seemed perfectly valid, the
smooth transition into the end segment of Jigsaw Earth caught many by
surprise. A beautifully composed piece, the band did very little outside
the confines of its structure, content to finish the song that they had
started two nights beforehand and move on.

The mildly reworked Spraypaint Victory got a mixed reaction from a crowd
both happy to have the song back after an extended absence, and
disappointed by how little its hiatus did for it stylistically. While the
bassline is imminently danceable and it is fairly well composed, the song
lacks maturity and confidence. It's well over a year now, but unlike
other songs that came out at the same time, it still sounds as though it's
in its infancy.

Conversely, 7-11, which immediately followed it, is a song that is clearly
in its adulthood and has notably evolved onstage probably more than any of
their other music. Starting first as an apathetic post-breakup lullaby
with a hard, guitar driven chorus and a thick techno end-jam, the song has
had numerous lyrical and structural changes in getting it to its current
state. Played solidly throughout, the calypso-esque section in the center
seemed lighter and breezier than usual with a smooth, lilting guitar riff
echoing through it repeatedly. As the closing techno jam commenced,
Altman clearly was a driving force once again, pounding away stolidly as
the jam went from dark, to uplifting and right back to semi-menacing. The
lighting up until this point still seemed to be getting a feel for the
room, yet suddenly the music and lighting seemed to match up on the same
emotional wavelength, darkening the room at times for the darker elements
in the music, while bathing it in soft red or blue light pouring out from
the back of the stage during the more uplifting.

The overwhelming buildup into Aquatic Ape was surprisingly effective, due
to both the smooth musical transition and the fact that this semi-rarity
had been played less than a week ago and so was wholly unexpected. As the
composed section ended and the sinister ending was giving way to the jam,
the tempo, normally increasing rapidly at this point, almost slowed down a
bit, allowing for a thick bass-heavy near-dub jam. Scary at points, the
music grabbed the audience en masse like a ragdoll tossing them about
slowly in unison as the dubby beat mutated into "Dublights," the fan
nickname for a half-time pseudo-dub version of Floodlights. The slowed
down tempo lasted for a fair amount of the song, almost too long, as the
undulating mass of a crowd calmed down a bit with mild disinterest.
Perhaps sensing this, the music picked up once again, mutating into the
standard Floodlights speed with an upbeat guitar and keyboard jam
reminiscent of background music in 80s movies during the montage sequence
where the weak protagonist is working out to become the buff love machine
that will surely win the girl. This jam gave way to a climactic ending
that at the time seemed "bigger" and more energetic than usual somehow,
though the song's ending often feels that way so it's difficult to tell.

They closed the set with a standalone Wet. An older song, loved by some
and reviled by many, the song had been shelved for an extended period of
time before being reworked last May by The Perfume, a Disco Biscuits cover
band comprised of all the members of the Disco Biscuits. While changes to
the song have left it more smoothed out around the edges musically, and
the verses have been reshaped apparently taking the band's singing
strengths and weaknesses into account, Wet still has a feeling of
incompleteness to it. The chorus, often seen as one of the song's
greatest strengths, seemed to lack the punch it typically has and not
leaving the structure of its own composition rarely makes a song by a
"jamband" stick out much.

The setbreak lasted close to 45 minutes, which was just about enough
time to access the bathroom at the Nation and share a shot of
jaegermeister with a friend soon to be departing for the army for an
indeterminate amount of time. For a shot of jaegermeister, it was
surprisingly sobering.

The heavy rolling bassline of Astronaut returned the dancers immediately
to their frantic pre-setbreak positions as though the gap in music had
never occurred. The floor of the Nation seemed fairly open and sparse for
a Biscuits concert during the first set, but whatever caused this clearly
was gone in the second set as the entire floor area was tightly packed.
Hypnotic at times, a lull set in early in the jam that stuck out more
noticeably than at any other point in the evening so far, especially in a
song widely regarded as a heavy-hitter. It's hard to gauge the precise
point in the music where it shifts from "dull" to "mind-blowing" but
somehow this unexpected shift happened. While noting this down, a sweaty
wild-eyed dancer stopped me and demanded that I write "exceptionally tasty
jam," which wasn't what I was going for but fit well enough for print.
Yet again taking advantage of their mastery of build-and-release style
jamming, the intense drumming and solid bassline created a Class V rapid
of solid whitewater jamming pouring off of the stage over the crowd at
full force.

The choppy guitar-driven King of The World flowed directly out of the peak
of Astronaut's jam. The song, built from a near-legendary jam from a few
years ago, has a surprising amount of detractors among those that would
claim that the jam that birthed it is one of their favorites. While most
of this version did not stand out much, the band's music coalesced
stunningly into a very solid ending to the first set's Shelby Rose. As
they ran through the closing refrain, the floor literally vibrated with
the intense, borderline epileptic dancing of the frenzied crowd.

After a brief pause, they played the Tunnel, one of the more spiritually
themed songs in the band's repertoire. After the high-energy ride of the
previous three songs, the song fit nicely as a break. While not yet a
strong enough song to build a set around, the Tunnel really came into its
own last spring at the Recher Theatre in Baltimore as being capable of
achieving "heavy hitter" status. This version wasn't quite of the same
caliber, but rather it displayed a very patient approach to the jam that
seemed thoughtful and mature without losing the attention span deficient

The heavily anticipated Mindless Dribble began almost cockily after a
very slight pause to clearly establish the change in direction between the
two. As a well-established almost guaranteed mindblower, the floor
erupted in excitement that was cut short only by fans not wanting to miss
out on even seconds of Dribble for something as mundane as applause. Some
songs win over an audience by complex, imaginative jams. This one clearly
owned its adulating audience from the first note. The version seemed a
bit more upbeat than usual from the start, with the "they missed the
perfume" chorus bordering on whimsical. But the first jam sequence was
almost surprisingly boring, considering the energy in the room by that
point. It was captivating, yet didn't seem to follow through on the
inherent promise that comes with every rendition of the song. It was
interesting, and held together nicely by some almost brilliantly adept
drumming at points, but seemed a little too undirected. The jam
transitioned softly back into the song proper, then directly out of the
song again for the outro jam, a menacing dance party that crackled with
electricity with every note. If the initial jam was less stellar than
usual, this was an apologetic counter jam, delivered with plenty of
interest. This was a jam with reason, direction and purpose. And
its purpose was to implode the minds of the collective crowd gathered
before them, and impolitely seize control of everyone's motor functions
so that dancing wildly was less a conscious decision and instead a
bodily function no less controllable than breathing or sweating. Easily
the high point of the evening, the jam seemed never-ending and when it
finally did segue back into Astronaut, the elation that erupted from the
crowd carried with it a small amount of regret that it was over.

Astronaut ended quickly and with much aplomb and applause, as attempting
to follow the prior jam with anything else would've been nearly
pointless. Not that anyone would've complained, of course, but it
would've been a very hard jam to follow. Time constraints brought the
band back onstage for an encore a little quicker than usual to play their
"shortest" song. Hinted at on several occasions throughout the night,
Munchkin Invasion is pretty far from the Disco Biscuits' shortest song.
On an earlier occasion, they reduced the song to five minutes for similar
reasons which made it more an amusing gimmick than a standout piece of
music. Here, they were at least given a bit more than 5 minutes to play
with, and while this version was in no way exceptional or patient, they
were at least able to give it enough time to respectfully close the
evening with it.

Following a spring tour with an equal amount of hit or miss performances,
the Biscuits gained an audible momentum around the beginning of May that
thankfully has not let up since then. The song placement, unrelenting
energy, confidence and continued creativity apparent in the music
throughout the night are all good indicators of the level of musical
maturity this band is at. "Trancemission" concert-goers are surely in
for an interesting experience, but it's nice to know a regular concert on
a Wednesday night can still be an intense experience on its own.

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