Camp Bisco :: 8.26 & 8.27 | Skyetop Festival Ground | Van Etten, NY

Words & Images by: John Smrtic

DAY ONE :: 08.26.05

"As you ascend this hill under a canopy of summer green, you are about to enter a very unique space. Noble Hills is a quiet, peaceful, magical, bountiful, inspiring place, and you have been called to be part of its offerings. You are welcomed here. You are invited to open your mind and spirit to an awakening, a remembrance, a transformation under this star-filled sky. We thank you for honoring our home with your respect for our clean land, personal boundaries, and abundant fresh air. May your experience here be like any other. This is not just another festival. May we all bring the world, through our experiences during this festival, to another level of transformation.
The Noble Hills Nation of Love and Light"

Camp Bisco IV: The Tranceformation
At the crossroads of the jam and rave communities, dwells a strong and significant pulse... a counterculture, a movement, a musical trance-formation. There, a handful of bands come to mind when discussing the live, improv, electronica vibe, but for many, that discussion begins and ends with The Disco Biscuits. As gracious hosts of this glorious weekend of music, The Bisco Boys are single-handedly doing their part in keeping the live, dance culture alive.

Outside their home base of Pennsylvania for the first time, Camp Bisco IV: The Tranceformation, took to the beautiful, inspiring hills of Van Etten, NY, just south of Ithaca, at the Skyetop Festival Ground. Boasting a stellar lineup of the finest jam, electronica, and international DJ society, The Tranceformation, produced by Meatcamp Productions, was one hell of a well orchestrated, sleepless, rocking good time.

The Disco Biscuits :: Camp Bisco IV
Well... to be fair, there were aspects of the festival that left something to be desired. VIP Camping, which has quickly grown to be a major festival option and money maker, was completely oversold, as was car camping. This left many folks who paid a heck of a lot more dinero for the luxuries shit-outta-luck, so to speak. Beyond that, the four hour wait to get up the mountain caused this (unhappy) camper to miss a hot and growing act, Brothers Past. The folks at Will Call weren't very accommodating as I had to search for and find my own credentials after they told me there were no more left, and it would be an undetermined wait. The initial police-supervised car searches were relatively chill, and the phrase "personal use" was thrown around liberally. After that though, the further ascension to Skyetop was guided mostly by swilled-out freaks, which was totally fine except for the fact that most had no idea what was going on or where to send the oversold campers.

Jon Gutwillig :: Camp Bisco IV
It didn't take long though for any weird feelings to dissolve along with the quickly fading sun-bursting sky. As dusk settled in, I skipped setting up camp and bustled down to the stage to be sure to catch every single Bisco moment. The turnout was great, and the crowd was growing denser by the moment as the hosts took the stage around 9:30 pm. This was a very special weekend for the Biscuits because drummer extraordinaire Sammy Altman would be performing his final two shows with the band, before heading off to medical school.

Over ten minutes of "Astronaut" space funk would get the party started, and "Shem-Rah Boo" would segue out of it. Aron Magner on inspired, soaring keys and Jon Gutwillig on guitar took solid leads. Then, they went back into "Astronaut," and over a half-hour later, after some mesmerizing, trance guitar work from a fierce and bold Gutwillig, Altman masterfully worked the skins back into a frenzy. A soft, subtle jam ensued marked by Star Wars-type effects on keys, which sounded like lasers shooting through the evening sky. "Stone" would continue the segue, as the repetitive nature of electronic music became clearly apparent. With The Biscuits, the jams can at times drone, the repetition indeed trance-like, but every now and then, the groove can stagnate or flatten out.

But one thing is for sure, the hybrid, dreadlocked ravers don't seem to mind. We all know what we're getting into, and we pay good money for it. Honestly, what more could one expect from a band whose name was street slang for Ecstasy in the UK and for Quaaludes in the US (and no kids... those 'Ludes aren't real).

Magner & Brownstein :: Camp Bisco IV
Nearly ten years in the making, The Bisco evolution is noteworthy, as the fearsome foursome started out playing mostly Phish and Dead covers. What a long way they've come to the DJ-inspired, synthesized grooves. Though first set songs like "The Devil's Waltz" still sound like Phish-wannabe material, the ensuing twenty minute jam would clearly demonstrate the band's tranceformation. Gutwillig's remarkable, constant, and persistent guitar lines were wooing, spinning the audience into a cocoon of bliss. Bassist Marc Brownstein would shine coupled with Altman's rhythm on the drum and bass of "Save the Robot." This solid foundation would give the guitar and keys much room for exploration throughout the weekend.

"Mindless Dribble," making a Set II appearance, would be the highlight of the night as the distinct and dirty dub would resonate into the midnight skies. Trippy, delayed key strokes, heavy, rich bass, and Sammy riding the cymbal and kick would take the listener on a psychedelic journey exploring all genres of electronica, including trance and down-tempo. A nice "Sister Judy's Soul Shack" would be the filling in this delightful "Dribble" sandwich. Other highlights included a twisted "Digital Buddha" played uncharacteristically U2 style. There was also a stand-out funk jam amidst Brownie's "And the Ladies Were the Rest of the Night."

Brownstein & Omen - Conspirator :: Camp Bisco IV
Conspirator wouldn't take the stage until around 2:00 am, but the mood only grew progressively more freaky and amped as the late night seconds ticked away into the bliss abyss. Brownstein's latest project includes Magner on keys and DJ Omen on the wheels of steel. Jake Cinninger from Umphrey's McGee probably summed up this music experience best as "a chance to get outside the box... Conspirator kicks holy hell on robotic stomps, melodic flourishes and daring DJ improv... where the DJ is the template, or the root of the idea, and the real time instrumentation floats around the idea of the pre-recorded notion..."

Indeed, Conspirator is both dark and soaring and loud and psychedelic. DJ Omen seems to work in great collaborative understanding with both Brownstein's booming bass and Magner's meandering musical whimsy. Hopping on Umphrey's current tour for a few dates, expect this trio to ride the wave of electronic glory to become a solid touring attraction, particularly with the Biscuits losing Altman.

The New Deal :: Camp Bisco IV
Alright, alright - if all this mind-blowing, preconception-shattering live music wasn't enough, Toronto's "live, progressive, break-beat, house" threesome, The New Deal, would sonically shatter the air waves of the early morning hours. With the concert area nearly as full as when Bisco played, now after 3:15 in the morning, never was it more apparent that "The Freaks Come Out at Night." And whether you had a clear head or one filled with man-made toxic fuel, the Deal laid down the law and made sure not a single soul was resting.

Much like Altman is the Biscuits glue, multi-talented and multi-tasking drummer Darren Shearer is the octopus-like beat banger that sets The New Deal's pace. Superior musical communication allows bassist Dan Kurtz and Jamie Shields on keys to mutate and transform a highly danceable house groove at the drop of a hat, or rather a Shearer-inspired break-beat. These boys laid down a blistering, festival-stopping performance that stretched out over two hours, as the dawn danced playfully on the horizon and the kids danced playfully in the fields.

DAY TWO :: 08.27.05

Kevin Kinsella - John Brown's Body
Camp Bisco IV
No rest for the wicked - or at least little rest for a festivarian. Campless and drained, this roving reporter found respite in the reclined front seat of his car from around 11 am to about 2 pm. Talk about a power nap! In my blissful oblivion, I managed to sleep through Lynch, featuring moe.'s Jim Loughlin, and Burlington's hot new product Turkey Bouillon Mafia featuring Jennifer Hartswick.

First up on my agenda would be Ithaca's own John Brown's Body. The pioneers of American roots/dub reggae are a sure-shot festival draw guaranteed to get the crowd moving. Doubtless the most talented reggae band from the States, the octet constantly teeters on the brink of superstardom, touring and playing with not only legendary reggae bands, but also major jam and mainstream acts as well. Led by the brilliant vocals of rhythm guitarist Kevin Kinsella, JBB explores a personal and societal heightened awareness, all with a backdrop of stunning, horn-punctuated, progressive roots sound. And when the boys effortlessly drop the dub style, the hordes of dance kids at Camp Bisco got down especially hard.

With the mood properly set and the overcast skies making the late August afternoon air brisk, The Benevento/Russo Duo would get a massive reception on the second stage (or as Marc Brownstein would jokingly refer to them – The Ambiguously Gay Duo.) With Marco Benevento on organ and Joe Russo on drums, the terrifying twosome brought their highly original, mutated jazz-electronica-punk to the eager festival-goers.

The Duo :: Camp Bisco IV
Delivering a relatively small yet highly captivating repertoire of familiar tunes on a non-stop touring schedule, The Duo has catapulted rapidly into the jamband limelight. Grinding out the rhythmic trance foundation, Russo, formerly of Fat Mama, is a fan favorite. Benevento adds the signature soul, riding the swell of improv into the ocean of sonic waves.

A few standouts from their set included "Becky," which is part pre-programmed drum machine and the rest, human-driven synthetic electronica. Russo was at his best busting forth the tribal stomp and rolling thunderous heartbeat of "Sunny's Song." Additionally, Benevento contributed palpable tones and hues to the heavy electronica drumbeat of "Welcome Red."

Umphrey's McGee :: Camp Bisco IV
The early evening hours, and perhaps a major portion of the festival's acclaim, belonged to Chicago's windy city sons Umphrey's McGee. This Midwest six pack is truly a conglomeration of musical geniuses and authorities. Effortlessly and masterfully bending genres and concepts, these bastard children of the 80's are turning the jamband world on its head as they steadily ascend the ladder of success. The best part of it all was that Umph got to play two full sets at Camp Bisco IV, and they did so by providing a rollercoaster of emotions and styles with alarming proficiency and expertise.

"Sociable Jimmy" was a solid opener with Brendan Bayliss on the super slick vocals. The metal, borderline punk of "Plunger" would continue the segue. "Jazz Odyssey" was just that – a free form stylistic journey into the heart of creation. The first set highlight though would be a cover of the Talking Heads' "Making Flippy Floppy," with sick percussion highlights from Andy Farag and a fluid, trance-porting jam.

The conceptualized improv of "Jimmy Stewart" moved through a hip-hop and electronic jam until the scene's hottest guitarist, Jake Cinninger, played a sizzlin' game of follow the leader with Bayliss. The latter's "Bridgeless" would close Set I with the spirited, pensive lyrics:

Brendan Bayliss - UM :: Camp Bisco IV
Dialing in my prescription
Relying on old definitions
When all preconceptions are lifted
Growing is more for the gifted
It's never a word till it's spoken here
Meaning interpret it's still unclear
This cant be hard as choosing it
We're all better off than accusing

After the spacey haze of the second set intro cleared, "Nothing Too Fancy" ironically raged from electronica to "McMetal" to reggae, while Cinninger continued to blow our circuits with his searing string work. Over twenty-five minutes later, I was left scratching my head at the oxymoronic loose intensity and overwhelming tightness these boys bring to the table. It's hard to try to capture these cats in words, but what popped into my mind was that they have an amazing '80s catch with the hindsight of over two decades of evolution. The melodic landscapes continued on "Push the Pig" as piano man Joel Cummins did the West Coast hip-hop thing right, with the tweaky keys in the jam section. Later, Farag would meld with the stellar rhythm section of Kris Myers on drums and Ryan Stasik on bass for the outstanding metallic reggae of "Higgins."

Hallucinogen :: Camp Bisco IV
As if this wasn't enough, we still had two sets of Bisco coming, including "The Professor's" farewell, and some of the UK's most scintillating DJs in Hallucinogen, Eat Static, and Younger Brother (once again, well into the dawn). The Biscuits surprised everybody big time whipping out the first "Highwire" since November 2001. This tune is "The Big Happy" but with lyrics. The groove quickly built into a tight "I Remember When." Gutwillig would display his guitar wizardry on "Aceetobee," offering a highly danceable yet repetitive, stagnant flow.

Impressive though was the blistering pace of an inverted "Nughuffer." The sentimentality began oozing as the boys kinda stopped the song in the middle to explain that the tune is less about a pot pipe and more about losing something you love (in reference to Altman). The enlivened segue would dip back into "Aceetobee" and Sammy's "Onamae Wa" finished the set.

Jon Gutwillig :: Camp Bisco IV
"The Very Moon" would kick off Set II, marking the celestial event of the moon being as close to the earth as it has been in centuries. The funk portion of the jam would have us dancing amongst the planets with Magner playing a phat synthesized organ. Notable too were Sammy and Brownie keeping tight and on point rhythm, while leaving plenty of room for Gutwillig to explore.

The slick techno number "Caterpillar" was a clear sign of this band's capabilities. Yet at the same time, I couldn't help but think that the sound was nearly identical to the 1980s Eurotrash, a la Depeche Mode... but this time for tweaked-out hippies. The dub jam out of "Above the Waves" proved that Sammy is a badass drummer while Magner added the reverberating keys. Altman's "Floes" would make a late second set appearance as the band and crowd would rage with a "SAMMY" cheer after the tune. A song specially crafted for the occasion would seal the deal, as "To You Sammy" sent the drummer on his way to a higher education. By this point, the melancholy had become tangible yet the mood remained triumphant.

Sam Altman :: Camp Bisco IV
Camp Bisco IV was truly an end of an era for the trance/rocktronica juggernaut. Though rumors are floating about who will take Altman's place, The Biscuits noted their desire to continue to play and grow, keeping an open invitation for "The Doctor" to come back and join his brethren behind the kit. In the end, the gathering of freaks was a spectacle of major sonic exploration, and it was also about the positive creation that can pour forth from the union of like-minded souls. Through their music, The Disco Biscuits urged everyone to explore, to be daring, and to dance on the edge and transform into beings of higher consciousness.

Appropriately, The Biscuits closed the live portion of The Tranceformation with "Spectacle." The encore would display the crew's strongest lyrical offering of the weekend and would send the dancing kids to that ever-so-close but yet so far moon:

Asleep in the day, awake in the night,
Only so many roads to take your life.
The problem you see,
You can't mess with time
And take a different road you'd try.

Isn't life just a spectacle?
One hand short of a miracle.
And if you're butterflies through the wind...
And you don't think you want back in again...

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