PARADES FOR BISCUITS: GEORGIA THEATER

Photos taken by Adam Gulledge

There is always much anticipation when the date for a Georgia Theater performance of The Disco Biscuits approaches. While the band's shows in nearby cities can be "hit and miss," Athens is always rewarded with evenings that are at various times energetic, playful, challenging and most definitely powerful. Why does Athens get such treatment? Could it be the fact that every time the band plays there they are greeted with a parade? [This seems to flatter the band, so nobody tell them that this city simply has a curious, some say perverse, love for parades.] Certainly one could site the plethora of extremely attractive UGA young ladies that are always on hand as a positive factor.

I, for one, believe it is the magic of the Georgia Theater. Sure the building is a bit shopworn, [I found better bathroom facilities when I spent a night in an Atlanta jail last year] but there is a palpable energy in this room. It is truly a "Brokedown Palace," harboring music-loving spirits. It is an outstanding place for anyone to experience a band they adore, and if you have not yet attended anything there, make a point to do so.

I adore The Disco Biscuits. [I even decided against purchasing the recently released Bonnaroo CD because there was no Biscuit track, I'll get the Peoples/Panic track from someone and be happy.] The Biscuits repeatedly challenge their fans with different approaches to their lively performances. Any person showing up to a Biscuit show looking for some sort of replication of a previous experience is likely to be disappointed. The band also constantly is working new material into their huge catalog, and they reward the careful listener with subtle deviations, deliciously gradual segues and by tinkering with the sequencing of their compositions [they frequently perform inverted or dyslexic versions of their material, sometimes stretching across shows]. Their "drum and bass/techno" sensibilities also make for a delightful dancing experience. And let's not forget that they have Jon Gutwillig, widely acknowledged as one of the most spectacular guitarists in the scene.

There are many great bands blending elements of techno and jazz into the jamband realm. Some of my favorites include Brothers Past, The New Deal, Perpetual Groove, and the brilliant Sound Tribe Sector 9. However, The Biscuits possess an explosive nature that none of these bands, and few bands of any genre, can even approach.

The band, on a good night, has the ability to "launch a full on musical cannonball."

This line is borrowed from the one and only verse of "Svenghali," the opening song from the band's October 19th GT performance. The delicate intro, gradual build, and "introduction to Bisco," lyrics of this song make it an appropriate appetizer. Guitarist Gutwillig's fluid guitar lines, and drummer Sam Altman's flawless delivery of the increasingly complex rhythm drove this version. The prudent interjection of electronic drum sounds behind Gutwillig's caressing lead at one point lent the song an intergalactic Pat Metheny vibe. I couldn't figure out if these artificial drum noises were coming from Altman or the "sound wizard," keyboardist (and so much more), Aron Magner. Gutwillig's resolution of the final jam juxtaposed a flurry of notes (mimicked quickly by Altman) with the central riff of the song. This elicited the first of what would be many powerful responses from the attentive Athens audience (the outburst drowned out a rare flubbed guitar note), as the band sang the final lyric.

The last delicate notes had barely left Gutwillig's guitar when the band launched into the evening's first offering from their recently released Senor Boombox album, "Floodlights." While he is clearly no Tupac, Bassist Marc Brownstein handled the hip-hoppy lead vocal admirably. Many jambands come off sounding chalky white when drifting into this realm, but The Biscuits are able to judiciously incorporate rappy elements without straying from their own central sound. The "Floodlights" jam is a perfect example of this. As Brownstein was thumping out a meaty bass line, Gutwillig and Magner exchanged Biscuity melodic lines. The band eased through a long jam that gradually lassoed the audience into frenzied dancing. This section also included a seemingly spontaneous, Gutwillig-sung, return to the "when you run for your life" line from the chorus. If this was an error, Jon covered it expertly (he has developed an uncanny ability to cover his goofs) by simply framing the next section of the jam around it. The return to the chorus after the jam quickly led to the song's somewhat abrupt conclusion, another example of the band stoking its fan base.

The dreamy intro to "Kitchen Mitts" followed. This is one of the band's newer songs (it was debuted in July) and clearly they are still feeling their way through it. Gutwillig's lead vocals were predominantly tentative, and there were times when the band seemed on different maps rhythmically. He did make sure the "So sweet Georgia, why must I try," line was audible, and the crowd responded appropriately.

The character of this song is pining for a lover that has acted on a wandering eye. Each section of the chorus builds to nursery rhyme like floating vocals singing first "just like mine," and later "we for tea, you and me." After those, the band quickly returned to the swirling rhythms of the song. The repeated "just like mine's" at the end of the song recall the "just for you's" at the end of Jerry Garcia's "Cats Under The Stars."

During a gorgeously flowing jam, Magner worked in a melody reminiscent of some of Santana's 70's instrumental work. Gutwillig first offset it with some jagged rhythm work, then he echoed it with some decidedly Santana-esque "na-na, nana, na-na" vocals, while simultaneously lending guitar muscle to the gliding rhythm. These vocals served to bridge the song from a gentle melody into a brief taste of Bisco mayhem (those moments where the energy swirls through the room, engulfing all but the most stubbornly resistant). The band seemed most comfortable with the fetal song at this point, as Gutwillig brought them back to a gentle jam during which Magner emerged as the point man. Aron is the most improved member of the band, and he has grown into one of the most interesting single players on the entire jamband scene. This section was a perfect example of how he can deftly use his many keyboards in brilliant combinations to find just the right sound at any given moment. As Gutwillig rejoined him at the helm about ten minutes into "Mitts," the band embarked on a brief example of the band's patented "shape-shifting" style of jam. The intertwining keyboard and guitar leads were stoked by Brownstein and Altman's quick polyrhythmic fills, which stimulated the melody, without surrendering the backbone. However, the band again surprised the careful listener, as at one point they swiftly tightened the rhythm up, accelerated the tempo, creating musical speed, which propelled them toward the slamming introduction to what would become a twenty-minute plus version of "Munchkin Invasion."

"Invasion," is a welcome part of any Biscuit show, as it features rapid fire crashing blasts of notes, sections that demand energetic reading, and seductive Magner/Gutwillig interplay. It is another Biscuit tune that I feel is indirectly autobiographical, as the lyrics offer, "we come from the city, we come from the jungle." The seeds of the band physically are New York and Philadelphia, yet it was when they started incorporating enticing jungle rhythms into their performance that their popularity surge began (although there is also a lyric "my name is Sally," and if this is a nickname for any band member, I am unaware of it).

They delved into the shape-shifting more heavily on "Invasion," leaving the transition into the song to appear as shape-shifting for the uninitiated. As they moved through the jam, each member had moments of being the center point, and a dizzying array of textures, tempos and themes were explored. The band was characteristically unhurried, as the first jam flowed, teased, then consummated with a fiery move to the composed middle section. This gave way to another audio adventure starting with some hypnotic guitar from Gutwillig as his three band mates held a steady rhythm. Gutwillig led the way for much of this jam which can only be described as amazing, eventually drawing the song to it's ending point, which was the Shut Up and Play Your Guitar era Zappa-esque intro to Sam Altman's "Sound One."

The delicious rapid-fire lines that all four musicians sent off in various flurries made "Sound One" (another cut from Senor Boombox) a very enjoyable song for dancing or even good ol' finger watching. Gutwillig delivered acrobatic guitar, and Altman's ape-like drumming seemed to be chasing the bulleting outbursts from Magner and Brownstein. This is one of the band's shorter songs, and the lyrics are the polar opposite of Dylan-esque, but it is a very enjoyable tune. Performing the song without error is a formidable task, as it is very complex musically, but the band flaunted their musical acumen by delivering a note-perfect version and thus providing a three and a half minute aural joyride.

"The Story of the World" served as ear relief, with it's bouncy intro and playful Gutwillig lead vocal. This song has a few funky moments and rapid fire fills, but it is a more straight-ahead rock song than most of the Biscuits' numbers. Gutwillig delivered some sparkling lead guitar before easing the song back to its quirky central riff, and the final chorus brought the set to a celebratory conclusion.

The opening notes of "Reactor" elicited some wild cheering in the crowd; apparently this is the favorite song of some of the locals. The song is just over a year old, but it is already a "much requested" tune, and I was about to find out why. It was almost impossible to pick up the lyrics to the song, and I can't even begin to tell you what the song is about... but with this band, this lack of clarity may even be intentional. They charged through the verses with an urgent, muscular delivery of the volcanic music of the song, making me think this could be about a breakdown of a nuclear reactor.

The instrumental that flowed out of "Reactor" started with some low doomsday guitar runs from Senor Gutwillig. This led to yet another example of how Aron Magner has quietly become one of the smartest improvisers on the scene. He never overwhelms the sound (and he has completely weeded out any type of "cheesy" sounds from his keyboard area). As Gutwillig laid down some funky low work, Mags was deftly dropping in very quiet accents, adding depth to the music. Magner also prudently contributed to some ethereal improvising that Jon was putting forth, but then took the reins himself, leading the band into some of the most dizzying shape-shifting of the evening. The jam progressed through a stunning array of textures, rhythms and themes. At one point Magner moved them from a bouncy rhythm into a very seductively flowing glide that built to a section, which turned the floor into a frenzied mob. This would only be the beginning of what would become a wonderfully insane energy at the ol' GT barn. The Biscuit "tour kids" were starting to become fueled by the band, and in turn, were dishing energy right back. The vortex was on. In the middle of the mayhem, Gutwillig regained control and his spiraling guitar brought us all to fantasyland.

This segued tightly into "Digital Buddha," which I am convinced was written at least partially for longtime Biscuit taper Rich Steele, but no one has yet been able to confirm this for me. This is a song of few lyrics, and on this evening they clearly were still tinkering with it (the song was not even a month old) but there were some interesting moments indeed. There is a vigorous shuffle to the composed sections, as well as an otherworldly Gutwillig central guitar riff. Sam Altman was the star of this version, with some mind-blowing drum work, and more liberal use of the electronic drums (again, this may be Mags, I just can't tell), which blended perfectly with Gutwillig's guitar lines.

I later learned that this "Digital Buddha" was an "inverted" version. However, as they eased into "7-11" it was immediately apparent that this may be some form of inversion as well, as Gutwillig began with the final lyrical section. He added a celebratory yell to his lyric after the "as your brain's ripped to shreds" line. He then moved to the second verse, which was followed by the song's first verse. I believe this would classify as a dyslexic version (or biscoassbackwards), but whatever it was, Gutwillig delivered a brief bit of solid guitar, with Brownstein again driving the machine with Godzilla bass lines. Gutwillig toyed with the third verse again as the song moved to an intoxicating dub section.

This shape-shifted into some more Bisco juice, which unfolded into the ethereal opening of "Sister Judy's Soul Shack." This is a fine example of pure psychedelic Biscuits. The band painted the lush musical landscape like a public television artist...now here's a tree, let's put a nice cloud over here, a nice flower by the tree, and maybe a little bunny rabbit... but before it got too "feel goody," Altman interjected some dark drum rolls, and the song began to take off. Some soaring lead guitar from Gutwillig moved the band toward the "No one knows that you can't always get what you want," section, which signaled that unfortunately, we may only get a snippet of this outstanding piece. The a cappella closing confirmed this suspicion, and the band took their only pause of the set.

After a brief breather, the band jumped into "Little Betty Boop," an older song about a young lovely first discovering, and then acting on her sexual curiosity. [She "wants to view herself as a Casanova," and has, "flipped herself to the other side," YOU figure it out.] This song has always been a raunchy ride, and this version was no different. The band was starting to show their fatigue as the composed sections were getting sloppy (they hadn't had a night off in a while), but once they moved to the instrumentals the energy was insane. They blasted through an intense jam, catapulting back to the composed section of "Boop," with fury. After these lyrics they quickly veered away from "Boop," into a crafty little jam that evolved into a futuristic blues feel, with Gutwillig's "smoky downtown club" licks blending with some enchanting Magsounds.

A quick "Boop" half-riff led to a brief transition jam into one that could potentially become my personal favorite, "Shelby Rose." This song became a bit famous at Alpine Valley last summer for causing a few to miss the beginning of The Other Ones' Saturday show (The Biscuits closed their side stage set with a mesmerizing version of the song as The Other Ones were starting on the main stage a few minutes early). This is one of the band's introspective, quiet pieces. They tend to play these less frequently than other tunes. Some speculate that this is due to the loud whining of some of the younger Biscuit fans that prefer relentless frenetic romps to ebb and flow. Even the slightest hint of a ballad has been known to send some fans off for a huffy piss. If this is true it's too bad, because the best bands are the ones that are able to deliver delicacy as well as mayhem.

But I digress.

Marc Brownstein's lead vocal never sounded better than on this song. Aron Magner computerrific coloring echoed some of the lines. The mid-verse musical explosions seem unnecessary, and I wish the band felt comfortable enough to let the song remain gentle through the verses, and leave the explosions for the instrumentals on this one.

After a brief composed instrumental portion, the band, driven again by Captain Relentless on drums, moved expertly back to their shape-shifting. I just love this stuff. This is what makes them worth seeing again and again. They were starting to lose some of the drunken frat boys at this time, and their chatter at the back of the room became like "the fifth Biscuit" at one quiet point (let's be honest, this music simply flies over some folks' heads). However, those of us up front were holding rapt attention as Gutwillig's lead guitar wove it's way through the interplanetary musical landscape that the other three members were conjuring. The spaceship sped it's way over to Planet Pink Floyd, and they dove into a "Run Like Hell," which was wildly energetic even if did have a bit of slop to it (and it delighted the drunken fratties, even knocking some baseball caps to the floor). The muddy, shouted vocals and "balls to the wall" delivery fed the hunger of the front of the crowd, resulting in a near moshpit situation (although a friendly pit, mind you). They then reminded us where this glorious set began with a powerful coda of, "Reactor," making the set a phatty overstuffed Bisco sandwich on Reactor bread.

Yummy.

They are not an encore band, and although it is always nice to hear them move through the majesty that is "The Very Moon" (from Gutwillig's Hot Air Balloon opera). This version featured some funky low notes from Gutwillig and descending Magner piano runs during the verse sections. While it seemed a bit rushed, and yes even sloppy at times, there were some wild energy bursts which set the stage for a powerhouse return to Floyd's "Run Like Hell," which found the teeming stage front folks erupting in uninhibited pandemonium. There were many sweaty hugs in the audience after the boys slammed down the last note of this one.

The remainder of their fall tour includes stops at The Rave in Milwaukee, The Vic Theater in Chicago, and a closing show at The Galaxy in St. Louis. The band's New Year's run will surely harbor many sick moments. Check out www.discobiscuits.com now, check out the band live, and thank me later.

Robert Turner
JamBase | Georgia
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 11/6/02]

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