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Published: 2003/12/06
by Mike Greenhaus

The Disco Biscuits, The Webster Theater, Hartford, CT- 11/29</b.

Philadelphia is technically their womb, but this Thanksgiving the Disco Biscuits called Hartford their home. Psychedelic disc-jockeys, the Disco Biscuits tend to thrive in small, somewhat seedy looking clubs; venues that allow the band to blur the line between concert-arena and dance-hall. Webster Theater adheres to such a Bisco blueprint featuring ample dance space, dim lighting, and a bar ripe with Red Bull. Courtesy of the Hartford Police, a "Prostitution Free Zone" sign even prominently hangs on a nearby poll.

A choice spot for the group, which like to play late and long, the Webster Theater has been a part of the Disco Biscuits’ tour docket since September 2001. So, it seems fitting that the group would celebrate the holidays with a two-night Thanksgiving stand at the New England venue. Given that the band only scheduled limited dates this season, it also makes sense that these gigs would double as a bizzaro holiday run, mixing carefully calculated spectacles and experimental performances.

This Thanksgiving weekend was a bit unsettling for the Northeast jamband community. With Phish, moe., the New Deal, Brothers Past, Max Creek, Karl Denson, and the Ominous Seapods all playing within driving distance of each other, the mini-vacation was more akin to a civil war than a time of thanks and family gatherings. So the roughly 2000 fans that trekked to the Webster Theater Saturday November 29th were staking claim to the Philadelphia-bred quartet. Given such heavy competition, it’s a testament to the group’s staying power that their first two-night Hartford stand was packed, even if individual night attendance was a bit lower than earlier Webster Theater performances.

Never ones to take their fans for granted, the Disco Biscuits offered them a full and varied plate this Thanksgiving. On Friday night, the group presented bassist Marc Brownstein’s rock opera "The Chemical Warfare Brigade" for only the forth time in nearly as many years. Trying not to succumb to novelty, though, the group used their second night at the Webster Theater to thank their fans in a different way, unleashing some of their most trusted jam vehicles and trying out their newest material.

Opening with their trademark "Svenghali," the Biscuits brought many of their big guns out early on in the set. Lately, the Disco Biscuits have built their set-opening jams slowly, allowing the audience to gear up for their seamless instrumental segues and bass-heavy dance beats. As the group’s sound develops into a more sophisticated, layered mixture of trance and fusion, stops and starts have been all but ruled out of the quartet’s repertoire. Like DJs, the Disco Biscuits build their sound note by note, before locking into their shows’ ultimate groove. Thus, though the composed song section of "Svenghali" seemed somewhat rushed, the song’s individual structure proved less important than its overall gateway into the set’s groove. Venturing into more spacious territory, "Svenghali," like many jams this evening, showed the Disco Biscuits to be growing, trading in fun-trance beats for more adventurous psychedelic experiments.

For most of their four hour show, the Disco Biscuits danced through all their set-list tricks: "Crickets," was inverted, "Run Like Hell" was spliced in-half, and "Triumph" uncoiled like a G. Love song juiced with some jam sauce. Also, at the start of the second set, T.E.R.A horn player Dan Bratigan joined the group, laying his brass over the group’s dub beats. Though microphone problems prevented Bratigan from adding too much electronic energy to the quartet’s instrumental collective, his guest spot helped link the Disco Biscuits to his own project’s layering performance approach. Building rock anthems on top of techno beats and fusion-time signatures, the Disco Biscuits are apt at slicing apart songs to find its experimental core. Yet, as the Disco Biscuits’ groove becomes tighter, their songs as single units have fallen by the wayside. For most jambands, this trance-formation is like cutting fat from a Turkey, but it’s almost a shame to see Biscuits’ songs meld into one consistent theme instead of variations on different grooves and rhythmic patterns. Songs like "Svenghali," "Aceetobee," and "Shem-Rah Boo," are some of jam-rock’s very best compositions and, lately, each number has become just another sample in the group’s disc jockey approach to performance.

But the Disco Biscuits’ energy and musicianship remained high as they jammed their way through many of tour’s staples. The group’s new rocker "Fever" also unfolded into a surprisingly flexible jam-vehicle. At first harsh and angular, the three-month old song may develop into a more lovable theme as the group continues to experiment with its texture. Rounding out their set-list, the quartet polished off some old favorites, offering "Bernstein And Chasnoff" and "Down to the Bottom" near to the end of each respective set.

With bassist Marc Brownstien’s bass providing a solid backbone for the band, the Biscuits filled each note they played. Guitarist Jon "The Barber" Gutwillig interjected his trademark jazz-meets-dub licks, while keyboardist Aaron Magner played around with his synthesizer toys. Pumping their adopted anthem "Run Like Hell" with adolescent energy, the group breezed through the song’s chorus, before dipping into the evening’s most danceable moments.

In fact, the group’s second set unfolded into a series of epic peaks. Clearly demonstrating each member’s proficiency, especially drummer Sam Altman who also indulged in an enjoyable drum solo, the Disco Biscuits’ orgasmic set climaxed at least five times in nearly as many songs. The transition between "Down to the Bottom" and the end of "Run Like Hell" was particularly choice, as the group put forth their final burst of evening energy. The Disco Biscuits might want to think about pacing their set list with more carefully developed melodies and ballads in order to accent their bursts of energy more carefully yet, in this club setting, their Ritalin performance approach worked perfectly.

For such an uptempo show, the quartet’s encore was a rewarding, but surprising, choice. "Kitchen Mitts" has mustered up some controversy, given its static structure and lullaby-like lyrics. In many ways it’s akin to Phish’s "Fee," an early stab at compacting the group’s jams into more tangible tracks. Complete with a catchy "Na Na" chorus and a buttery guitar buildup, "Kitchen Mitts" has the potential to remain a quirky fan favorite or turn into a more trite traditional pop number. While Saturday’s version was not the song’s strongest rendition, it was full of baroque cartoon energy and helped appease a group of fans requesting the song via a cardboard sign.

Like many club acts, the Disco Biscuits are still growing. But this Thanksgiving weekend the

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