The Disco Biscuits, Starland Ballroom, Sayreville, NJ- 3/24-26
Last November, the Disco Biscuits celebrated Thanksgiving with a two-night stand at Sayreville, NJ's Starland Ballroom. At the time, the band's future sounded bleak. Nine months into its first extended road-break, the Disco Biscuits were coming apart at the seams, divided between a growing number of side-projects and other non-musical pursuits. After a handful of sub-par performances and several Behind the Music worthy stunts, even dedicated fans began to wonder whether the quartet's interest in the Disco Biscuits had waned. Confirming months of speculation, in early November, drummer Sam Altman also announced his impending departure from the Disco Biscuits to pursue a career in medicine. And, while many bands have gone through drummers at Spinal Tap speed, Altman's departure symbolized the final crack in the group's longstanding fraternal struggle.
But, with the weight of his musical future temporarily removed, Altman seemed to find his musical pulse, anchoring two of the tightest Disco Biscuits performances since 2002, just after Turkey Day. Gearing up for a five-night, four-city tour, the Disco Biscuits "said goodbye" to Altman with another round of stellar performances including a high-profile New Years show at the Hammerstein Ballroom. In the meantime, the Disco Biscuits returned with a strong, healthy fanbase—-many of whom found the band after its seminal post-Millennium period. With the group's future in question, many longtime fans also returned from the woodwork resulting in some of the group's largest crowds to date. In fact, the Disco Biscuits' orbit seemed so high that Altman agreed to continue to perform with his bandmates during his academic breaks.
And, after the dust had settled, the Disco Biscuits founds itself back in Sayreville, offering three-solid, tight performance at the tail end of March. While technically a weekend stand, the group's performance took on the feel of a mini-tour on the heels of a pilgrimage to Amsterdam (as part of the Jam in the Dam festival). A sign of how far the group had drifted off the road, these six nights marked the longest Disco Biscuits outing since January 2004 and the group responded by offering twelve sets without repeating a song. One of the most prolific bands of the early 2000s, the Disco Biscuits' canon far exceeds its four-record output. In deed, in 2001 guitarist Jon Gutwillig boasted that he has seven or eight albums of unreleased material. Clearly looking to dig a bit deeper into its canon, the Disco Biscuits offered any number of asterisk-worthy breakouts: "Texas Pussy" (last played 8/24/02), "The Devil's Waltz" (last played 8/16/03), "The Big Happy" (last played 10/01/03) and "Stone" (last played 1/2/04). Several of the weekend's most memorable numbers, including an apt "Eulogy," were also played in tribute to Justin Gevurtz, a Biscuits fan who passed away earlier this year.
While many of these numbers, especially "Stone," received fresh treatment, it is still striking how long its been since the band has debuted a new number. In certain respects, the group's sound has remained stagnant since 2003, shifting between dark, rock-numbers and carefully layered trance-fusion. Yet, during this mini-run, Gutwillig in particularly seemed to launch into the "type-two" jamming which has defined the Disco Biscuits sound since 1998. Ironically, as electronica has become one of the most popular jam-band source styles, Gutwillig has drifted further from his techno influences. Juxtaposing his guitar-solos against Altman's four-on-the floor beats, Gutwillig reminded fans that the key to the Biscuits' success has always been its rock-oriented songs, launching pads for its more futuristic electronic experiments. And, while these three nights are clearly still part of the group's transitional period compositionally, the band's chemistry quickly removed early weekend mutterings of the "N" word (nostalgia that is).
From the beginning the Disco Biscuits have taken its song apart, using the pieces to create new jamming patterns and a language worth of asterisks. Tying this three-night run together into a cohesive unit, the Disco Biscuits offered a stellar run stemming from the inner band excitement first found in Sayreville last November. Sounding a bit jet-legged after its trip oversees, the Disco Biscuits took a half-set to fully shift into gear. While the crowd energy remained high, and "Sammy Chants" served as steady inter-song filler, the band didn't truly find its feet until "42." A later day composition by Marc Brownstein, "42" represents the group's new electronic sound which is a bit more metallic than its original trance-fusion blueprint. A number that is also part of Brownstein and keyboardist Aron Magner's repertoire in Conspirator, "42" seems to signal the direction the group could have move into if and when the Biscuits decide to return to the studio. Fittingly, the group's best segue emerged deep into the group's second set with a pairing of "Munchkin Invasion" and "Sound 1."
Unquestionablely the group's tightest performance, the Friday show served as a weekend highlight. After opening with a crisp reading of "Spectacle," the Disco Biscuits immediately launched into a set-long segue, which included "Vassillios," "Story of the World" and an inverted "Reactor," before concluding with a stand-alone version of "Hot Air Balloon." Gutwillig and Brownstein's onstage chemistry remained the weekend's highlight, as the band's duel frontmen listened to each other's playing while alternating leads. Weaving bits of the dance-trance the duo favors in JM2 between "7-11" and "Astronaut," the Disco Biscuits harnessed their audience's energy. Flexing the classical muscle that initially separated him from his peers, Gutwillig also offered "The Devil's Waltz," while Brownstein put on his Beastie Boys cap for an encore of "Floodlights." In truth, it's this contrast of styles, crystallized within this half-hour period, which proves the Disco Biscuits have always been greater than the sum of its parts.
A relatively young and eager crowd, Sayreville's audience proved that the band's fanbase is still a healthy crop concertgoers. A new ballroom located in a relatively shady looking area of suburban New Jersey, and halfway between the band's primary fan bases in New York and Philadelphia, Starland has also quickly become the group's de facto weekend retreat. And, based on this performance, it's easy to tell why: Starland is the rare room with enough nooks and crannies to appease both the dance-crowd and the more laid back barflies. And despite its strip-mall setting, Starland Ballroom adopted the feel of a destination retreat, with the built in excitement of a mini-festival.
An up-and-down performance, Saturday's set will be remembered by its second set. After returning to the stage, Altman led his bandmates through a series of rare song teases that touched upon "Jamillia" and "Flog Legs" before launching into "Mindless Dribble" (Magner described Altman as conducting his bandmates like "marionettes"). A lightning quick medley, Altman set the pace for the group's final set of the weekend, Magner added an exclamation mark to the run by playing his keyboard with his right foot at the end of "Texas Pussy," before jumping on—and subsequently collapsing—his rig "rock-star style"(no second encore that night). A somewhat lopsided show, the group's second-set run-through of "Little Shimmy In A Conga Line," "Pilin' It High," and Mr. Don lacked the edge which characterized the rest of the run. Falling back on "Little Shimmy," the group seemed to lose direction at the end of its third-night, an unfortunate way to end a solid, three-night outing. Yet, the group's first set remained solid, featuring tight versions of "Rock Candy," "The World is Spinning," and a welcome cover of "Safety Dance." As his time with the Disco Biscuits comes to a close, the group also sprinkled Altman's compositions across this three-night stand (highlighted by a reading of "Floes.")
While occasional spectacles gave dotted its history, the Disco Biscuits traditionally shied away from the parade of guests and novelty stunts which often characterizes jam-nation. When the group did dip into non-musical theatrics, it often came back to haunt them, such as ill- fated marquee gigs like "The Banana Ball." So, it's comforting that the Disco Biscuits' recent run will be remembered more for its exceptional musicianship than its three-dimensional jokes. And, like any great Bisco moment, the band nodded to its future, before fully tackling its past.