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Reviews > Shows

Published: 2016/02/18
by Isaac Slone

The Disco Biscuits, The Fillmore, Philadelphia, PA- 2/4-6

Photo by Keith Griner

I could consider the Disco Biscuits a guilty pleasure, not to say that I feel any guilt for listening to the band, but rather guilt for the extent to which I adore them. Said guilt only manifests itself when I try to think critically about their music and childish enthusiasm gets in the way. Luckily, there was a lot to objectively analyze about the Disco Biscuits’ three-night run (February 4-6) at the Fillmore Philadelphia, which just opened its doors last October (with a headlining performance by Philly’s own Hall & Oates). The Disco Biscuits, the bad boys of the jamband scene, have played just about every music venue in their hometown of Philadelphia and continue to make regular multi-night visits, so the opportunity for the band and their fans to christen a new space made for a lot of hype and excitement around these three shows. Not to mention, the band had just recently finished an exceptional four-night run in New York City (Dec 30-Jan 2) at the PlayStation Theater.

Though the 2,500-capacity venue got increasingly more crowded over the course of the three nights culminating in Saturday’s sold out performance, the room was equipped to handle the droves of Biscuits devotees. The shows featured opening slots from Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Darla, and Swift Technique respectively. Before deconstructing what occurred musically over the weekend, I must properly laud lighting designer Johnny R. Goode for making the most of the new venue. Goode went above and beyond what one usually expects from a concert’s light show, as he tastefully integrated laser systems alongside a full spread of stage lights and even spotlights that extended above the audience. His displays effectively brought the audience into the Disco Biscuits universe from the moment the band hit the stage on Thursday night.

The Disco Biscuits warmly welcomed the crowd for the first set of the weekend, opening with “Chemical Warfare Brigade,” a rarity in recent years (last played on 12/31/13). Offering a short but sweet build in momentum, “Brigade” did not venture far from form but rather introduced energy to the room. The improvisational ruckus the Disco Biscuits are known for echoed through the Fillmore for the first time in the segment that followed, which featured a sly segue between the spacious dark horse “Aceetobee” and the relatively new “Neck Romancer.” The placement of “Neck Romancer,” which saw its debut in 2010, is an example of an aspect of the Disco Biscuits’ design that all bands should learn from. Instead of forcing new material into a set and toying with already-established momentum, the Disco Biscuits craft improvisations around newer songs. “Brigade” and “Aceetobee” were debuted over ten years before “Neck Romancer,” yet thanks to the band’s improvisational craft, the newer song was a welcomed addition to the set. The improvisation following “Aceetobee” demonstrated the attention each band member takes to each other’s playing. As keyboardist Aaron Magner and bassist Marc Brownstein spend a lot of the year on tour with each other, either with the Disco Biscuits or one of their various side projects, they are incredibly (and obviously) attuned to each other’s tendencies. Guitarist Jon Gutwillig took his rightful place as the creative guitarist between Magner and Brownstein during the first jam in “Aceetobee” before relentlessly soloing over the song’s outro. The segment that followed, which saw “Tricycle” sandwiched between the beginning and ending of “Munchkin Invasion” showcased some of the ways in which the band incorporates aspects of electronica into their improvisations. Magner lead the jam out of “Munchkin Invasion,” picking up on some of the musical motifs being laid out by Gutwillig. Magner did not hesitate to take the band far from the song’s structure, yet established melodies and rhythmic nuances that were quickly picked up by the rest of the band. The improvisation following “Tricycle” was certainly more based around the shockingly steady yet exploratory percussive work of drummer Allen Aucoin, who put the electronic side of his kit to use, laying down beats and percussive effects that are most commonly associated with trance music. Ending the set with the outro of “Munchkin Invasion,” the Disco Biscuits returned to the unmistakable ferocious sound they have cultivated over the years, rounding out the first set of deep improvisation.

Thursday night’s second set saw the type of creative setlist choices and psychedelic debauchery the band specializes in. Opening the set with “Reactor,” the band began to chase each other around musically, playing with exceptional focus, particularly from Brownstein and Aucoin who kept the whole jam afloat rhythmically, while also offering their own creative output. The four-piece locked in with one another for a harmonious peak before dropping into the middle section of “Jigsaw Earth.” For those unfamiliar with the structure of Disco Biscuits’ sets, it is important to mention that they will at times play songs out of their structural order, sprinkling various parts of a song throughout the show (these instances are known as “dyslexic” renditions of the songs), or sometimes just reverse the order of a song’s parts directly (“inverted”). In this instance, the middle part of “Jigsaw Earth” was played twice, sandwiching the instrumental “Tempest,” before the song’s ending was played. Once the ending was played, the band then kicked back into the song’s beginning. While these structural changes may seem unusual or excessive to someone on paper, they are thought out by the band to bring uniqueness to every show. Following the ways in which the band breaks up songs and imagining hypothetical combinations is one of my favorite aspects of Disco Biscuits fan culture. Closing out the set with the ending of “Floes,” a song that was previously started on New Year’s Day during the band’s run in New York City, the Disco Biscuits left fans beyond satisfied, mostly due to the cohesiveness of the entire show. While the band spared no musical risk, they were also clearly focused and attentive, making for the perfect opening night. Encoring with a standard “Kitchen Mitts,” the Biscuits left the audience in wonder of what was to come over the next two nights.

Friday night opened in a similar fashion to Thursday with a standalone “Pilin’ It High,” a song that is oftentimes performed in the style of the Disco Biscuits’ alter ego, The Perfume. The song’s original rock version was taken off the shelf for the first time since 8/25/10, and clocking in just over eight-minutes, was an almost-radio-friendly take on the tune. Leaving behind Thursday night’s setlist strategy of sandwiching songs, the Biscuits then ventured into a segued segment that ran the course of the set. The band struggled to find their ground with the instrumental “Strobelights and Martinis,” yet did not force the improvisation along. Their reluctance to settle on one particular theme or motif during the “Strobelights” jam certainly did not seem without reason. The band was instead practicing patience and building an exuberant segue into “Air Song,” a song I usually associate being placed in a darker and more spacey context. The change of placement was compelling, particularly due to Magner’s use of a more standard grand piano sound in the jam that followed. “Air Song” was one of the many moments of the weekend where I took note the tastefulness of Aaron Magner’s keyboard work. Magner delivered synth lines and keyboard runs carefully, musically demonstrating his attentive listening of what was being constructed rhythmically. Magner’s refined playing allowed Gutwillig the room to craft his own motifs without overcrowding what was already being laid out by the band. “Air Song” led into a standard take on “Vasillios,” which edged on the more electronic side towards the jam’s completion, as Brownstein and Gutwillig left the stage to give way to a jam between Magner and Aucoin, a semi-regular occurrence at Disco Biscuits shows referred to as “Moshi Fameus.” Emerging after five minutes of pure drum and synth electronica, Gutwillig strapped on his trusty Gibson hollow body guitar and started the intro to perhaps the most sought-after Disco Biscuits song, “Magellan.” Just as Trey Anastasio of Phish has his iconic Languadoc guitars and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead played custom guitars made by Doug Irwin (most notably Wolf and Tiger), Jon Gutwillig of the Disco Biscuits fits with his Gibson ES-135. As these players dive into the unknown and unplanned on stage, their faithful guitars serve as their most valued assets. While Gutwillig’s Gibson makes an appearance at most Disco Biscuits shows, “Magellan” is a song all about exploration and navigation, making his switchover from his Parker Fly guitar all the more appropriate.

Friday night’s second set opened with “Little Shimmy in a Conga Line,” a song notably absent from the Biscuits’ New Years run. “Shimmy” saw the band holding to aspects of the song’s composition before branching out into an improvisation that exhibited the ways in which the four band members play off each other’s tempos. Each of the musicians on stage play a part in establishing and diverging from the tempos set up throughout improvisations. While Aucoin may work up a sweat drumming, Gutwillig is sometimes simultaneously holding back and letting long notes ring out. Sticking the instrumental “Cyclone” in the middle of this jam that then exploded back into the ending of “Shimmy,” the band crafted moments of rhythmic synchronicity, as well as equally valued stretches of divergence before leading into a more straight-ahead take on “M.E.M.P.H.I.S.” Closing the set out tastefully, “M.E.M.P.H.I.S.” and “Shem-Rah Boo” were paired together nicely as final vessels for expansive playing. “Shem-Rah Boo” built into a major-key uplifting chaos that the rest of the set did not see a lot of, which worked well as a transition into “Kamaole Sands,” a song which maintained its high energy and form so well, one might have thought of it as an encore. Returning for the real encore, the band started up an extended intro to “On Time,” a song that would have satisfied in its original three-and-a-half minute studio form. Yet, the Biscuits were not ready to pack it up and took “On Time” out for a last minute spin, ending the night on a high note.

The Disco Biscuits took the stage for their final night at the Fillmore on Saturday and immediately started delivering excellence. Kicking off with their most valiant of the three attempts at standalone opening songs, “Save the Robots” saw the band wasting no time. The song worked so well as a standalone perhaps because it is designed to have two sections for jamming. The latter jam section featured Aucoin’s most impressive design of electronic drum sounds all weekend. Brownstein’s song “The Tunnel” was then pulled out after a year on the shelf. The “Tunnel” jam was reminiscent of the sounds of more traditional psychedelic rock bands, such as Pink Floyd. Gutwillig and Brownstein did an excellent job of introducing these sounds so early in the show, while Magner did the heavy lifting of constructing a musical peak. Brownstein then moved the band into an inverted rendition of the instrumental “The Great Abyss.” The dramatic and blissful “Abyss” featured some of the more delicate and precise playing to come out of Gutwillig all weekend, and offered, as always, an absolutely brilliant live music experience. The roar of “Abyss” took its time simmering down into a brief “Sound One.” The set then came to a close with a stunt similar to that of the final night of the band’s recent run in New York (1/2/16). Fellow Philly natives, the Swift Technique horns, joined the Biscuits for a cover of “Suspicious Minds” (made famous by Elvis Presley), and “Touch Me” by the Doors. The tongue-in-cheek covers featured costume dancers on “Suspicious Minds” and showed the band letting loose, maybe even basking in a moment of acknowledgement of how successful their weekend had been.

Closing the run out with outstanding vigor, the Biscuits opened their final set with “Little Betty Boop.” The band immediately soared off of “Boop” into an up-tempo jam, which exemplified Gutwillig’s diverse abilities as an improvisational guitarist. Gutwillig effortlessly played through moments of thematic riffing, straight soloing, and subtle texturing over the course of the “Boop” jam, which fed into the peak (an inverted rendition) of “Crickets.” “Crickets” provided the set a dissonant centerpiece before Magner initiated a playful jam on the main theme of Ozzy Osboune’s “Crazy Train.” As “Crickets” segued back into “Boop,” it was clear that the Biscuits were determined to deliver a strong well-rounded set. The jam out of “Boop” into “Story of the World” was a bit of a breather from the more ferocious playing of the rest of the set. “Story of the World” itself was a knockout version, covering most of the bases of the Biscuits wide range of sounds, mixing Gutwillig’s rock guitar rigor with Brownstein and Magner’s more danceable tendencies. A twenty-five minute standalone “House Dog Party Favor” capped a spectacular set off right. Because of its compositional nature “House Dog” offered a straightforward first jam, followed by a darker divergent second jam. Leaving the audience with an encore that may as well have been dreamt up by a fan, the Biscuits closed out the run with a short, sweet, and sentimental “Magellan Reprise,” followed by the coveted “Basis for a Day.” I left the run feeling more than satisfied, proud to be a Disco Biscuits enthusiast. The Disco Biscuits will make a quick stop at the AURA Music & Arts Festival in Live Oak, FL on March 5 before their two-night run at Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre with the New Deal on March 25-26.

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