For a band that used to extol the virtues of “relaxing with the Disco Biscuits,” it would seem the venerable Philadelphia jam/prog/trance-fusion outfit had every reason in the world to take it slow and easy on the first sets of their 5-shows-in-6-nights run at NYC’s Nokia Theater. For one, the band was coming straight from their annual Holidaze run in Jamaica, following a fairly extended absence of gigs or touring in the latter half of 2008. They’ve also been working on their first new studio album in 7 years. In addition to jet lag and a tropical vacation hangover, the Biscuits were faced with 5 nights at the same venue in their home city away from home, and for a band that has despised repeating setlists for their entire career, a mandate to make each of the 5 nights unique for the fans. However, as it turns out, the Disco Biscuits retain a good deal of their trickiness, at least as far as trying to predict how and what they’ll play in a given situation; luckily for the fans at Nokia, they also obviously had a good amount of pent up rage seething behind the veil of chilled confidence.
Perhaps trying to lull the crowd into a false sense of that aforementioned relaxation, bassist Marc Brownstein and drummer Allen Aucoin began the show by leading a sparse dub/slow funk jam out of nothingness, building patiently into a menacing march that would lead into a revamped “Floodlights.” For a band that has in the past improvised at the highest of speeds, patience was very much at the forefront here: keyboardist Aron Magner lithely laid down synth bubbles and sweeps with grace, and guitarist Jon Gutwillig was content with just adding subtle blips to the 15 minute intro. While a great contrast to their reputation as four-on-the-floor machines, this initial foray into their new dub interests, followed by a hip-hop inflected jam out of the song itself, seemed to wane a little early, and perhaps dealing with sound issues on stage, the band played with a nervous energy that betrayed the downtempo vibe. Additionally, one must ask whether “Floodlights,” a Brownstein penned Beastie Boys knockoff first played live almost a decade ago, is really the kind of song that represents the band anymore as they open a 5 show run for NYE.
Nevertheless, it’s the Biscuits’ unpredictability that makes them what they are, and the first set picked up steam and logistical interest as Aucoin led the band to faster tempos in “Shem-Rah-Boo,” the classic tale of narcissism strewn across slap bass hyper-funk, and a flurry of segues off its jam that included literally 90 seconds of “Little Betty Boop” and the ending section of “Svengali.” Instead of resting on their dub laurels, the band seemed to harken back to their 2001-era style in their improvisation, playing fast and furious in a way that is unique to them: the style is obviously steeped in psy-trance and house music, with the drums and bass providing simplistic backdrops for a swirling combination of Magner and Barber, but the tempo is something faster. With Allen pushing the kick drum harder and harder in the speed-trance sections, the electronic canvas took on a dark and angry undertone, envoking even bands like Ministry into the Biscuits’ cadre of genre-hopping forays. This was accentuated in the first set-closing “Save the Robots,” whose layered and smooth middle jam gave way to an intense ending section, which, in this particular case, worked well in a relatively shorter time frame. Additionally, taking a cue from fellow electronic jam-band Sound Tribe Sector 9, the Biscuits made more use of their ever increasingly laptop presence on stage; Brownstein especially seemed to get the hang of his bass synth setup rather quickly in “‘Robots” and the second set’s “Story of the World.”
Unfortunately, the beginning of the second set belied the aforementioned issue of where the band is in terms of composition and songwriting. Starting with a new track, somewhat reminiscent of Tortoise in a strange way, the offbeat song seemed to carry no weight in it’s placement to the NYC crowd. Currently, the band still relies on older tracks to revolve their set around. While the improvisation continues to mature and grow after more than a decade, it just doesn’t seem like the band is able to consistently catch lighting in a bottle with their new songs, nor develop the new original material over time to a seemingly younger but still demanding fan base. However, perhaps cognisant of this issue themselves, the band still finds ways of surprising the audience with new ideas tacked on to classic tracks. For instance, “Munchkin Invasion” got the second set moving back in the speedier direction, featuring a dark circus-like jam, and in that spirit of innovation, extending the last measure of the song, slowly repeating the phrase and subtly moving it upwards and out into a quick and unrelenting DnB beat.
It was obvious from the first 30 minutes of set two, all fast trance and DnB as “Munchkin” moved into the instrumental “Liquid Handcuffs,” that the Disco Biscuits were in no mood to relax during the first night of their historic NYC run this week. A jumpy and excited Gutwillig was definitely the figurehead for a band that’s been in a little bit of gig-withdrawal, and even on the first night of the run, the band was willing to deliver heavy hitters in droves, while bypassing any hint of easing into the home stand. Hopefully, for fans looking for a resurgence in 2009, the band can take some of it’s momentum into their upcoming tour and some new originals.