Until a mere two months ago I had never visited the Pacific Northwest. As a lifelong eastcoaster (23 years, Connecticut) I have had very little exposure to the atmosphere and vibe of Pearl Jam Land. Just the usual cliches came to mind, “grunge, coffee, and rain”! However, following a few life surprises and ten-hour drives from the San Francisco Bay Area, I now call Portland, Oregon home. When The Disco Biscuits pulled their dueling tour vehicles outside Seattle’s Crocodile Café to perform on the night of October 17, 2000, I had only been a Pacific Northwest resident for a total of forty-nine days. The rain was pouring down as a small yet excitable crowd began to gather outside the venue. I did not notice any coffee cups, but there probably were some in attendance. When I pulled the door open to see if the Café was broadcasting that evening’s important ALCS game between the Yankees and hometown Mariners, I was greeted by an aggravated, plump security guard. He was one of those guys who deems it necessary to don excessively large ear fillings - those bazaar pieces of jewelry that stretch the ear lobe past all recognizable shape. He wanted nothing to do with me watching any sort of game, so before the Biscuits took the stage some friends and I headed a few doors down where we were greeted by a single Seattle fan rooting on his hometown team. The game was tight and soon a few of us, including Biscuits bassist and lifelong Yankee fan Marc Brownstein became worried we would not get an official result before set time. However, following the David Justice series clinching home run, Jon Lesser, road manager and sound man informed Marc that the Biscuits needed to start their set, and so they did, opening with “Stone Song”, from their debut CD Encephalous Crime. Whereas this number usually leads directly into “ The Devil’s Waltz” the Biscuits instead tore into “Liquid Lazer”, the ending funk section of “Pat and Dex”. The Yankee game was still going on as the band launched a “Hot Air Balloon” and I figured it would be a great time to run the three doors down to catch a final score. You see, “Hot Air Balloon “ is one of the few songs where the Biscuits do not seek the outer realms of trance-fusion. Just as I was making my way to the door, midway through the composition, drummer Sam Altman began inserting nasty kick drumbeats behind the usually standard rock format of the song. Soon the Biscuits had kicked into high gear and they jammed out of “Hot Air Balloon” for the first time in a while. As I quickly forgot about the Yankees, the Biscuits left “HAB” entirely and upped the tempo as they steered into the second verse of “Little Betty Boop”! The high octane “Boop” segued into the end of “Aquatic Ape” and before I knew it an hour had passed. Somewhere along the line I was told the Yanks won and I settled into the rest of the Biscuits show free from Pinstripe Fever. As the band closed the first set with the often ridiculed, rarely played, and spastically energetic “Wet”, keyboardist Aron Magner began percussively pounding away at his instrument and the standard “Wet” jam had the Seattle crowd moving.
Set break gave me a chance to get a feel for the strange Crocodile Café . The vibe was not the friendliest as Seattle’s multi-pierced heads mingled with the traveling Biscuit crowd. I can only speak for this one venue but the bouncers and security guards had chips on their shoulders and the club resembled someone’s basement more than it did a concert hall. There seemed to be paper mache Halloween decorations adorning the walls and the sticky floor flashed me back to boring college fraternity parties. These second-rate vibes aside, the Biscuits took the stage for set two, Brownstein playing comfortably with the knowledge that the Yanks were on their way to the World Series.
“House Dog Party Favor” opened and all Biscuit freaks that made the trip to Seattle were indulged in a twenty-five minute version that featured some jamming rather reminiscent (in parts) to the epic 10.2.99 version of the song. Stretching the second jam the band was diametrically opposing the dingy sound and atmosphere of a rainy night in Seattle with gorgeous melodic weaving from dependable axe-man Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig . I suggest anyone who likes “House Dog’s” check this version out, but keep in mind the time and place it was played. After “3 Wishes”, the band kicked off “Bernstein and Chasnoff”, a signature Brownstein tune. This “B & C” featured a gorgeous guitar line to enter the jam section but will probably be remembered more for Gutwillig’s random sneezes that peppered the jam. Segueing into the arctic chill of Altman’s “Floes”, Barber dutifully fought his own cold as Altman was busy creating drum textures unheard to this ear before. Anytime the Biscuits get into a “Floes” jam these days, Sam plays these really unique tribal beats that sound like they are being defrosted after years of lying dormant under the ice of the North Pole. A standard “Morph Duseldorf” came next and following the quick trip across the German border the band begun to jam into Pink Floyd 's “Run Like Hell”. A longtime Biscuit staple this “RLH” was less than phenomenal. Having heard many different, epic versions of this song throughout an assortment of Biscuit shows, I can honestly say that the Seattle version is not a keeper. Instead of finishing the song the band segued into the end of “Bernstein and Chasnoff” and as Gutwillig headed toward the fiery guitar lines that always signal the end of “B & C” he teased two new, remarkably kinetic, guitar lines - one from “Confrontation” and one from “Kameole Sands”. Gutwillig’s musical ideas at the end of the show pleased me immensely and allowed the band to end the set on a high note following the lackluster “RLH”.
The encore, “AC2B”, was well played and featured the usual gorgeous harmonizing between Gutwillig and Magner. Rarely played these days, “AC2B” always reminds me of why I continually see the Biscuits, as it was one of my first favorite songs. Feeling warm and welcome inside Biscuitdom I traveled back down I-5 to my new home, Portland, Oregon and the next night’s show at the legendary Crystal Ballroom.
When I walked into the Crystal Ballroom for the first time I was astounded by the venue’s size, grandiose paintings, and bouncy floor! A Portland landmark for the entire twentieth century, The Ballroom’s wonderful atmosphere was a welcome change from the previous nights’ rather depressing Café. Graced with three floors, three bars, including a gorgeous balcony, the sizzling crowd seemed amped for the Biscuits to take the stage, which was tucked into the far-left corner of the room
Regular Biscuit stage adornments, intricately woven white ropes fastened to large, rectangular black frames created a “spidery”, fairly “Halloweeny” feel to the Ballroom stage. Crewmembers Damon Cawley and Eric Bernstein deserve mad props for constructing these designs anew before every show. As the Biscuits took the stage a sizable crowd had gathered in the ornate setting and they were treated to a mellow opener, “Bazaar Escape”. Instead of ending, Brownstein lead the band through some short, gorgeous improvisation before segueing into the classic-Biscuits tearjerker, “The Very Moon”. Coupled, these two songs created a fabulous atmospheric mood to open the show and as the band energetically flashed through the composed section of the “TVM” the crowd energy easily surpassed any feeling from the night before in Seattle. Now that “TVM” has grown to usually include two full jams in it (pre-funk and post-funk) the song has begun to truly shine like the song I always felt it could be. As the post-funk jam section kicked into high gear, Gutwillig began leading the band into the end of the previous night’s “Hot Air Balloon”! Suddenly, I remembered the Yankees and how just twenty-four hours earlier the song had kept my attention on the stage instead of the game. I smiled broadly because no other band will cut and splice their songs as creatively as The Biscuits do. By allowing themselves the greatest possible space for trance exploration they formed a perfect fusion of the present moment and the “Hot Air Balloon” jam from the night before. Following the gorgeous trifecta of Bazaar>Moon>HAB, the Biscuits began a new Brownstein song entitled “Shelby Rose”. Besides featuring surprisingly melodic singing by the Brown One (as is the case on all his new songs), “Shelby” has fueled the new Biscuits drum and bass style. This “Shelby Rose” rose to a thrilling, electronic climax before settling into the final verse of the song. The crowd at the Ballroom was radiating the band’s cosmic energy as the band elegantly kicked off the Gutwillig- penned “Magellan”. To finish the first set they put a highly original stamp on the classic guitar build that is usually featured in the song. As they settled into the song’s first jam Gutwillig fiddled with a few symphonic guitar lines and then stepped back and let Magner swirl in with ambient texture. When Gutwillig re-entered the fray he played delicate lines over Magner’s space and soon Altman was bashing his kick drum but not with a techno flair. The sound of the kick was distorted somewhat, a more subtle, background element to this jam than a normal dance track. Noteworthy in its’ originality this Magellan should be listened to.
Set break leant me some time to catch my breath after a sweaty and shrewdly crafted first set. I recovered with a crystalline soda from one of the Ballroom’s bars as I was sure I needed some fuel for what proved to be a wonderful second set.
“Mulberry’s Dream” opened and stayed within the confines of a normal “Mulberry’s” jam before Gutwillig cranked it up a notch and seared through a guitar solo that landed the band in some vigorous new lyrics to “Crystal Ball”. A song originally debuted during Brownstein’s six-month departure from the band earlier this year, “Crystal Ball” introduced some reworked lyrics that included a shout-out to the endangered, lovable, and awfully chill animal, the manatee. Ironically ripping a “Crystal Ball” at The Crystal Ballroom, I was once again overwhelmed by the Biscuits playing. Hear was a song I had never heard live before and somehow it seemed to feature the most familiar melody and chorus! “Oh! Oh! Oh! Who’s got a Crystal?”, you ask? I do. In the form of this band from Philly who has never stopped amazing me with their bravado, flair and raw power. As they climaxed this song and neatly finished it, the roar of the crowd was loud and familiar. Before we could relish in the momentary silence, the band barreled into Frank Zappa’s “Pygmy Twylyte” and the real dancing was on. Magner led this jam with very resounding lead lines form his JP-8000 and I believe took a turn on his newest toy, a vocorder type of microphone that digitally alters his voice. This instrument seemed to lend a “breathability” to the jam as one can almost hear a human voice deep behind the sonic assault. After some serious orbital grooves, the band began teasing the opening lines to “Vasillios”. However, instead of going for the throat and tearing into the song, the band settled the groove down first and took their sweet time toying with the melody and drum beat to the song before Gutwillig signaled for the drop into The Uncivilized Area opener. Featuring more driving keyboard work by Magner and some slyly psychedelic basslines from Brownstein, this version brought the Crystal Ballroom to a kinetic height. Soon Gutwillig and Brownstein began toying with the simple yet beautiful melody of “Humuhumunukunukuapua’a” and the band plunged into this new Brownstein song that tells the tale of two birds that discover the infinite beauty below the ocean. This “Humu” jam was a fittingly delicate end to a raging set. Slipping off-stage to Brownstein’s comment, “We’ll be back…..soon”, the band was greeted by resounding cries for an encore. Little did everyone know what they were getting themselves into. Altman started his drum intro to “I-Man” and the band was off and running, embarking on a thirty minute encore that would segue from “I-Man” into the eerie “Widow in the Rain”, back into “I-Man”, into “Pat & Dex”, and finally into “The Devil’s Waltz”, which normally would have been played at the beginning of the Seattle show, (following “Stone”), the night before. Undoubtedly, this is not your normal band folks. The Disco Biscuits intelligently and stylishly capped their Pacific Northwest run by completing the circle they began painting the previous night. Everyone must go check out a show this fall tour as the band tears its way across the country. If you decide not to, you may miss a life-changing event.