By: George McCabe
If there is anything predictable about the Disco Biscuits, it’s that you can always expect the unexpected...and that it will rain at Camp Bisco. With half the year in the books, 2010 has kept up this tradition with many major events that left fans asking questions. When Planet Anthem was released they wondered if the new studio album, which strays far from the typical Bisco style, would drastically change the live shows to attract a more mainstream audience. When guitarist Jon Gutwillig broke his wrist in March, concerned fans worried that the Barber would never be able to play the same again. Not knowing what to expect going into a Disco Biscuits show is already par for the course, and this year has reemphasized that notion.
When a new song is debuted by the Disco Biscuits, general distaste by the fan base is as inevitable as death and taxes. Some of the band's biggest crowd-pleasers were ridiculed when they were first played. After playing the song a few times, the structure falls into place as the band discovers how they want the improvisational sections to sound, who should sing which part, etc. When songs from Planet Anthem, the latest studio album, were debuted, such as 'You and I' and 'On Time,' many longtime fans reacted to them negatively. It just didn't sound like the band. Appreciation grew for the songs as the band infused them into the live setting and added improvisation- heavy sections. While Planet Anthem contains many songs that haven't been actively incorporated into the live sets, the band has been fine tuning a few new songs that are not found on the album. New songs like 'Naeba' and 'Portal to an Empty Head' have been greatly improved from their debut throughout the year to become great jam vehicles.
After a great New Year's run at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square, the Biscuits started off the year properly with a four night run at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. Holding just over 600 people, the venue hosted an intimate run with the band that blew the roof off of the small theatre. The Disco Biscuits played such consistently solid shows that each night of the run was the favorite to at least one person (my personal pick is Saturday). After the run, the band took some time off from the road to finish up the album in the studio, playing only a four show run on the East Coast, their home turf, in February. Then in March, just days after the release of the Planet Anthem album, a broken wrist forced Barber to sit out for a few shows.
With the help of a few friends of the band, only one show was postponed and a unique line-up consisting of various temporary guitarists, including Chris Michetti (RAQ) and Tommy Hamilton
(Brother's Past), proved that tDB also expects the unexpected out of themselves and are able to make the best out of unfavorable circumstances. The guests impressively built up a repertoire of the band's songs and put their own personal touch on the improv sections. At the Bisco Power Mission benefit show at the Brooklyn Bowl in New York City, founding member Sam Altman, a jack-of-all-instruments most known for his role as the former drummer who left the band to pursue a medical degree (that's Dr. Sammy to you), took the stage to play a few old gems on the guitar for a rare treat for the fans who decided to attend the Barber-less show. While the temp guitarists did a great job learning and playing Jon's parts, it was clear that the rest of the band, especially keyboardist Aron Magner, stepped up their game to keep the shows interesting. It was also apparent that while the shows without him were unique and fun, the band just wasn't the same without Gutwillig.
As Bisco Inferno approached, fans crossed their fingers that the Barber would be healed enough to play the Biscuits' return to headlining the incredible Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. The band released a comical "Welcome Back Barber" video of the guitarist playing his instrument in various locations, reassuring fans that the Inferno run would feature the greatly-missed band member. Gutwillig wasted no time letting everyone know that he was ready to get back to business. At the Boulder Theater, the guitarist's first full show back with the band, Barber played with an aggression that showed that he was back and had something to prove. The next night at the Ogden Theater in Denver, the show featured many classic Gutwillig-written tunes, such as "Spectacle," "Basis for a Day," and "Once the Fiddler Paid". The Disco Biscuits played in great form at Red Rocks, as expected. They played the end of "Basis," which they had left unfinished the night before, as well as a pleasing blend of old and new songs.
In mid-July, the highly-anticipated Camp Bisco festival returned to upstate New York. The festival, now in its 9th year, is the band's own festival and their chance to do exactly what they want, including seeing the bands and DJs that they want to see and giving the fans what they want with their performances. The afternoon set on Saturday started off with 'On Time.' The song's ending section was played on Thursday, so the crowd knew that the song was going to land somewhere else, which ended up being an old staple, 'Aceetobee.' The jam at the end of 'Aceetobee' was slower, including a bass line from Marc Brownstein strongly resembling 'The Very Moon.' A very patient build progressed with the rhythm section while Barber coated the groove with upbeat, yet subtle riffs that showed that the band truly felt at home playing at the festival they had created 10 years ago to allow their early fans a chance to see them shine when they are most comfortable. Barber dropped back into the 'Aceetobee' ending theme but kept the energy up into a jam where Aron Magner's well placed full chords with a distorted organ sound hinted at the makings of 'Mr. Don', which they finally exploded into with Magner taking the lead. The jam lead into a tease of the end of ‘Svenghali’ before unexpectedly dropping into 'Pat and Dex,' a song which had only been dusted off once before with drummer Allen Aucoin. The non-stop segment started with a new song and progressed into three heavy-hitters, each more than a decade old, showcasing the group's wide array of styles. A sudden, yet expected rain storm on Saturday evening forced the band to cancel one of the three sets slated for the final day. As soon as the storm lifted enough to play, the Biscuits took the stage for an extended last set that included several highlights and a cover of the "Knight Rider Theme" complete with red lights flashing across the stage (à la KITT from the original series, not the latest abomination) from light designer Johnny R. Goode.
The Disco Biscuits have always been open to hearing what fans want to hear played. Taking song and even tweaked setlist requests, the Disco Biscuits do a great job at keeping their live sets new and creative. Obsessive knowledge of the band’s catalog causes mass confusion at a show. Whether it's a quick tease of a riff from another song or a fakeout by the entire band, the Biscuits keep you guessing. With new tracks from Planet Anthem like 'You and I,' 'On Time,' 'The City,' 'Uber Glue,' and other new songs like 'Minions,' 'Naeba,' and 'Portal to an Empty Head,' seeing the Disco Biscuits is even more unpredictable as jams start to resemble the new additions.
The original band started playing together in 1995, but began consistently creating some really impressive music as a unit beginning in late ‘98. With Sam Altman's departure from the band in 2005, the steering wheel of the psychedelic dance vessel was ripped out of its moorings, and it seemed even the human drum machine Allen Aucoin couldn't right the ship. As the fifth anniversary of Allen's induction into tDB approaches, it’s become apparent that the band members have finally meshed musically and can function as a cohesive, exploratory unit once again. With curve balls and touchdown passes being thrown left and right, it takes true dedication to remain a Disco Biscuits fan. Fortunately for the ones who had faith, the determination paid off and the band is once more hitting its sonic stride. With many songs remaining unfinished at Camp ('The Tunnel,' 'Spaga,' and 'Aceetobee,' to name a few) the Disco Biscuits left festival goers satisfied yet poised for more madness in the back half of 2010. With the Fall Tour starting at the end of August, and a late October gig with SCI at Hampton (hinting at some East Coast Halloween action), the band is bound to quench fans' thirst for Bisco.
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