Camp Bisco 14 Fills Another Chapter With Exploratory Experience & Memorable Music [Review]
Words by Zachary Franck
Photos by Adam Winokur, Dave Vann, and Teresa Taylor
I started attending music festivals in 2010, it was the summer that I graduated high school and my life had come to an intersection of unintended darkness and misplaced passion. There was a void that I was constantly searching to fill and I used various forms of escapism to do so. July came around and I was in an odd place, unsure of what the future held. A few friends told me about a music festival called Camp Bisco that was a few hours north in my home state of New York. Without thinking twice, I bought a ticket, packed a bag, and hopped in a friend's car. Little did I know that my life would be permanently altered in ways that I could never imagine. This fantasy world of mystical creativity and art in the purest form was mind-boggling. I had never thought about traveling to see the Disco Biscuits, but that weekend I realized why so many people did. My curiosity only grew and my trip down the rabbit hole was just beginning.
At that point, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I felt the calling in my soul for years, but was finally starting to act on the repetitive impulses to elaborate on my observations of life, and the world around me. A few years went by and I realized that my deep-rooted love of music and passion could coincide at the crossroads of music journalism. The epiphany hit me like a stranger in the darkness of the South Bronx. At that point, the Disco Biscuits had officially won me over and had earned the top spot as my favorite band to see live. I started to cover shows for various publications in and around New York City, before I realized that I could build my own website that represented my true vision, while giving me creative freedom to release content that I felt was up to par with other outlets in the scene. And so the journey began.
Instead of attending shows as a fan, I began attending shows as a music journalist. It didn't take long for the Disco Biscuits to become my main focus in this field. Their press manager Drew Granchelli gave me opportunities to show off my ability, and I finally had a chance to show music fans that I could deliver extensive, well-written reviews of the shows they loved. At first the critics chimed in, and they did so often, soon that changed. I kept pushing and began getting press passes for every single Biscuits run that I attended. As my audience grew, my writing evolved and the pieces began to fall into place. I always had my sights set on officially covering Camp Bisco though, and after attending five in a row, it finally happened.
As soon as I arrived at Montage Mountain, the memories came flooding back from the year before. I was fantasizing about what was about to go down on that stage, under that giant white tent - the Disco Biscuits were planning on dosing the crowd with cryptic catharsis, I knew it and so did everyone else. Last year a lot of people voiced their opinions on the many facets of the new venue; some people had positive things to say while most resorted to keeping it pretty negative. The band and their team partnered up with Live Nation to do their best on improving the immersive music festival. And they did just that. Camp Bisco, in its fourteenth year, had been rebuilt more than once. Since its inception the festival has moved back and forth between New York and Pennsylvania multiple times. This year the experience was undoubtedly better, Marc Brownstein made good on his promise and made sure of it. From the entry process to the security team, the positive vibes to the brand new wellness program, and even the evolved Color Wars (which was a huge success). Everyone pulled it off in a big way.
The first act that I saw on Thursday was Lotus. Besides the Disco Biscuits, I've seen Lotus more than any other jamtronica band. They've impressed me with their elements of ambient trance-funk and smooth delivery, and have solidified themselves as one of the bands that I enjoy to see live. I've seen them play at Montage Mountain for Peach Music Festival, but never once on the main stage. After a brief hiatus from Camp Bisco, they returned with a main-stage sunset slot on the opening day of the festival. The amphitheater was packed to the gills with music fans of all shapes and sizes. The obvious highlight of the set was Spaghetti into Flower Sermon, the two song segment encapsulated the true Lotus sound in its purest form. Even so, I had one thing on my mind - the Disco Biscuits.
When the Disco Biscuits hit the stage for their first set of the weekend, they wasted no time in cranking the intensity up to level ten. Opening with Triumph is a good way to make sure of that. An older rock song with heavy elements and ghostly keyboards, a great way to scare the common EDM fan away while making them curious enough to stay. When the band headed out of Triumph and dropped into the opening riff of Papercut, a song that has been shelved for five years, fans erupted with shock and joy. It was priceless to witness the facial expressions of those who knew what was happening. The total opposite end of the Bisco spectrum, Papercut balanced out Triumph nicely. I'd love to see them add this to the rotation so it can be sculpted and eventually evolve. Aron Magner took the initiative as Jon "the Barber" Gutwillig filled in the gaps with fitting riffs that flew from the strings of his Parker Fly. As always Marc "Brownie" Brownstein dug in as the band climbed a patient peak, before setting into Safety Dance, a cover that can be fun when it's placed in the right spot. The jam back into Papercut was tasteful, and at the time, the energy was glorious. They transitioned back into the composition with poise, it was outstretched without being stretched too thin.
Before there was even a minor chance of losing steam, Brownie and Magner laid the foundation for an inverted version of The Great Abyss. Allen Aucoin kept the tempo steady and simplistic as Barber showed off his control of dynamics. A strong example of second gear improvisation, never rushing or dragging until the clutch gets pushed and it's time to shift. And they executed that shift with elegant ascension. The 3D projection mapping of geometric shapes put thousands of minds in personal video game prisms. It didn't take long for everyone to realize that the new LED screens were substantial additions to an already sensory tingling experience.
I actually really enjoyed the way the band floated into the inverted 42. To be blunt, I'm not a huge fan of 42, and I'm rarely impressed by the majority of renditions from the past five years. Brownie and Barber had rock solid interplay that Magner danced on top of extremely well. Going into it, he played a phenomenal synth line on the Virus that Barber sat behind like the last open seat of a city bus. Because 42 isn't a personal favorite, I critique it more objectively than other songs. That being said, the jams into it and out it were both pretty fantastic. Magner used a balanced combo of clean piano and organ as Allen let loose on his hi-hats. One minute they were in a dub jam and the next they move into a blissful mid-tempo jam. Both ends of the song were layered and alive. And then boom! Nughuffer ending to close out the first set of Camp Bisco 14 - a great sign for the following night.
I wouldn't have wanted to start off Friday any differently than I did. I loved the afternoon set from Orchard Lounge, it was one of my favorite moments of the weekend. It's no secret that the Disco Biscuits fan base has an emotional connection with the trio, and they crushed their mid-day set with passionate mixing of deep, melodic beats. It was ridiculously satisfying for me, and I was dancing in the pit the entire time. The perfect pregame for another evening of Biscuits at Camp Bisco. Spencer Lokken started it off proper before his wife Bethany Lokken came on the decks and took us to wonderland. Ben Silver completed the trifecta and took us deep into a sunshine daydream. I really wish I had a recording of it.
I want to start off by saying that I felt the mix of the Biscuits sound was off during the first set on Friday. After speaking with multiple people, some noticed it and others didn't, oh well. The set definitely had some solid highlights, but it was hard for me to fully enjoy at the time. The opening segment of Jamilia into Park Ave was definitely cool, especially the Park Ave improvisation. During the Caterpillar, my ear drums were rattling like a martini being shaken by a master bartender; when I listened back to the soundboard it was a much different experience. Upon relistening, the transition from Caterpillar into inverted Mulberry's Dream showcased some tremendous synthesizer and organ work from Magner, right before Barber pulls it into the composed section. I've always felt that Mulberry's Dream has the ability to bring out some of Jon Gutwillig's rawest soloing skills, and the inverted version at Camp was no different. I'm used to seeing him shred the solo on his Gibson though, so the tone from the Parker Fly was a bit more fuzzy - not bad, just different. The jam out of it was elastic, but I felt like it was an odd choice to go into Feeling Twisted. The sound on Brownie's Moog wasn't right and I could tell he was annoyed about it. Everyone in the amphitheater was ecstatic, including Marc, when he threw his bass back on for a triumphant Caterpillar ending. There's something undeniably special about Caterpillar endings when the band is on the same wavelength. Do I think it was the best version of the last year? No, but it still ended the set on a victorious note.
As soon as the opening notes of Strobelights & Martinis soared through the July air, I was instantly relieved of any and all stress about the reality of the world. Surrounded by people that love and enjoy the Disco Biscuits as much and even more than I do created a vacuum of immense emotion and ridiculous dance moves. For an opening jam it had more soul and heart than some humans. Locked in as soon as the gate dropped, the decision making of every member was linearly aligned. I loved the choice to slide into Spraypaint, it brought the crowd another step closer to the band. Patient interplay between Brownie and Barber got dislocated and reset by Magner, pushing the improvisation to the next frontier. After a few measures the guitar and keys seamlessly intertwined with each other like the double helix of DNA. They push the throttle forward and fly into Lunar Pursuit with the confidence of one thousand kings. Like 42, Lunar Pursuit has never been a standout song for me. Sure, there are some spectacular versions, but it's never the song that I remember most after a set. But when they dropped into the halftime dub break, they shook the stage. The Solstice teases combined with galactic improvisation and it sounded like a hovercraft making its way through extraterrestrial catacombs. Either that or the 2016 soundtrack to Spielberg's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind - a multi-thematic flight through the dimly lit alleyways of the universe, before nose-diving back through the stratosphere, and pulling up at the very last second. That's what the transition into the end of Helicopters felt like - the exuberant landing of a single-engine space shuttle.
And then it happened, the return of the red Spaga, the darkened beast of status and strength. For those seventeen minutes I turned into the trance-fusion version of Mike Tyson in his prime. I'm not positive, but I think everyone around me did too. It wasn't long before I realized I had drifted away from my entire group of friends from dancing like a mental patient. The band kept the high level of extravagance intact like the top of the great pyramid. Allen let loose and sent sonic shock waves through the summer air. It's as if Magner pulled his JP8000 from the stone that Excalibur came from. I thought the NYE version was a notch higher, and I would've liked a jam out of it, but I will never be disappointed by a standalone Spaga at Camp Bisco. Everyone was hyped when they dropped into Nughuffer. The last one I saw was at the First Bank Center in Colorado during 2014, and it's one of the most classic songs in the Biscuits discography. Marc didn't tell a story this time around, and he didn't need to. They brought the realness out instead and they had no time to waste. The instinctual originality of the Disco Biscuits came pouring out like the breaking of a digital levee. Together, the band glided into a gratifying Spraypaint ending to finish the final set of Friday. I thought the set design worked out very well and they nailed it.
Every year the Disco Biscuits play a day set on the final afternoon of Camp Bisco. It has become an indispensable part of the festival. Everyone gathers at the main-stage for a massive get down of scorching jams in warm weather. This year wasn't any different. The band started it off with Frank Zappa's Pygmy Twylyte, a classic cover that has cemented itself in the Biscuits repertoire. If a cover doesn't become stale and continues to progress through improvisation, it shouldn't be shelved. Zappa once said, "Well, I'm specialized, what I do on the guitar has very little to do with what other people do on the guitar. Most of the other guitar solos that you hear on stage have been practiced over and over and over again, they go out there and play the same one every night, and it's really just spotless. My theory is this, I have a basic mechanical knowledge of the operation of the instrument and I got an imagination. And when the times comes up in the song to play a solo, it's me against the laws of nature - I don't know what I'm gonna play, I don't know what I'm gonna do, i know roughly how long I have to do it and it's a game where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it, and depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that's backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine, sitting here, but you can see them performed before your very eyes in a live performance situation." Now, I've never asked Jon Gutwillig about this quote, but if I was a betting man, I'd wager that he feels the same exact way.
Humuhumunukunukuapua was a perfect song choice for the day set. The inverted version delivered stellar jams, specifically a cinematic display of hopefulness through the musical telepathy of Barber and Magner. It wasn't hard to tell that Brownie was loving Barber's guitar work, he was radiating his feelings during the middle jam. The July sun was beaming but that didn't prevent the Biscuits from getting dark. One moment we were on a hang-glider over the Mediterranean Sea and the next we were in a Berlin basement of European untz. For the outro jam, Brownie switched to a minor key and completely changed the vibe. Allen picks up the tempo as Barber and Magner jog along side with ease. Coming in and out of the Humu composition seemed to be easy and habitual for the band. They build into an enthusiastic apex of emotional splendor before reverting the energy back down to work into the Grateful Dead's Viola Lee Blues.
Just like Humu, I feel that Shelby Rose was an excellent choice for the day set. It's one of the best songs that Marc Brownstein has ever written, and i'd imagine that his fellow band members would agree. It almost always creates a chalkboard for the Disco Biscuits to illustrate auditory equations on. Magner kept it in the realm of future psychedelic-fusion as Barber riffed soothing notes on his Gibson hollow-body. Allen Aucoin showed off his masterful technique by barely missing a beat on the up tempo peak and ending. Brownie praised him for it, which he should've, drumming like that in the humid heat of a northeast summer is not easy to do. They ended on a dime and counted into Little Betty Boop with smiles on their faces. The front three may have grown older over the years, but it's always evident how youthful they are when they're playing well together. And that's a magical thing.
The fifth set stands out because of the debut of two new covers, both flawlessly mixed with a Disco Biscuits classic, creating a jigsaw puzzle of original sounds and borrowed styles. Sweating Bullets began the calculated launch with thunderous power and lightning strikes of promise - a planned attack of planetary proportions. Allen took us into tribal rhythms of an orbital ionosphere. Magner projected the spacecraft with synthesized fuel as Barber directed us through an obstacle course of sonic meteorites, plucking notes out of the air like fireflies in upstate New York on an August evening. Brownie made sure the engines didn't stall, the most important job of all. The band slipped into Minions similar to how a lady in a short skirt makes her way into a club filled to capacity, with seductive confidence and an unmistakable aura. It's a song that I feel deserves to be kept in rotation. I think it exemplifies the current sound and style of the Disco Biscuits very well. Between Papercut and Minions, there's a lot of potential.
They exited it with an increasing heart rate, Brownie laid into the thumping bass line of Pimp Blue Rikki and Allen fell into the off-time pocket with a systematic approach. It gave Barber and Magner time to explore the best way to arrive at the beginning of the composition. The energy felt limitless. PBR is another song that fits the oceanic mid-tempo jams of late. I wouldn't be surprised if it landed a permanent spot in the Biscuits rotation. The past two versions have been exceptional. The band was riding the same musical wavelength like a digitally advanced magic carpet ride; they were taking continuous risks with patient approaches and intended releases of emotional tension.
Changing styles with self-assured confidence, they brought us back down to earth and into AC2B. And then surprised everyone when they went into Down Under, a brand new cover. Magner crushed it with his pan flute patches, and Barber seemed to have a great time singing the lyrics, I wouldn't be surprised if the song was his idea. They transitioned back into AC2B and it worked out pretty damn well. It also shows that the band isn't letting themselves fall into practicality, it may be minor, but they're not allowing the music to sit on a plateau for too long. White Lines by Grandmaster Flash is the cover that really blew the lid off the place. I mean, it flattened people in the best way possible. I couldn't stop laughing as I observed the looks on people's faces - it was gold, pure unearthed gold. And then back into AC2B - the triple stacked, double cover sandwich was a success. All in all, it was one of the most interesting sets that I've personally witnessed at Camp Bisco.
STS9 played an electro-groove heavy set that filled the main-stage in between Biscuits sets. They ended their set with an ambient theme backing a clip of Obama's most recent speech in Dallas. It was moving and they pieced it together very well. But after it ended, I had Biscuits on the brain. The last hoorah, the final straw, the finale, number six of six - you get the picture, you were there. The Disco Biscuits came on stage and counted into King Of The World, it exploded like a nuclear reactor getting dropped on Broadway. Images of Muhammad Ali were plastered on the LED screens, it was an awesome moment. Little Shimmy In A Conga Line has easily been one of the best songs in rotation this year - one ridiculous version after another, all year long. The one at Camp Bisco was no different. The jam out of Shimmy into Cyclone is a pretty good example as to why I follow this band around the country. It felt like we were on a runaway train with unlimited track. Then they slammed on the brakes with a twenty minute weather delay, Montage Mountain has been known to get some seriously unpredictable thunderstorms, so I can understand that they were trying to keep everyone safe. But I've never seen more confused faces at a Biscuits show before, eyes widened and anxiety began to build.
Yet again Marc Brownstein showed off his inner politician and calmed the crowd down before they came back on stage and presented one of the most mind-blowing moments in Disco Biscuits history. He promised that they would pick up at the exact moment that they stopped, and he kept his word. The drop back into Cyclone was extraordinary and I'll never be able to wipe it from the surface of my mind. The collective energy under that tent was electrifying and as pure as any drug on the face of the earth. We may have been under a massive roof but Johnny R. Goode brought the stars to us, the stars? Johnny brought the milky way to us. Between that and the thought-provoking concept and wicked execution of the first inverted Basis For A Day, a sci-fi middle eastern Shimmy peak, and a rewarding Story of the World encore, the final set of Camp Bisco 2016 will go down in Disco Biscuits history forever. Anybody that doesn't agree with that statement obviously wasn't there. It was a perfect analytic conclusion to one of the greatest musical weekends that I've seen from the band. A time capsule of the past, present, and future of the Disco Biscuits - one of the most original and musically tenacious bands to ever walk the planet.
Each set catered to a different type of party, a select vibe, a certain audience. All six were carefully crafted with well-thought song choices built into well balanced segments of intrinsic improvisation, and almost all compositions were executed with high levels of intelligence and intoxicating passion. Premium, high octane, triple-beamed and bagged Bisco at its best. Although I'm younger and haven't been seeing the band as long as most of you, it's refreshing to hear vets that have been seeing them for over ten years leave Camp Bisco with their jaws on the asphalt. That's when you know you're following the right group of musicians. Major evolutionary change is taking place within the band, team, and fans. Between the uplifting energy and the synchronistic auditory/visual experience, I can confidently say that the Disco Biscuits are moving to a progressive place of purpose.
Hunter S. Thompson once said, “Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” This quote defines the faith and feelings that I have for the Disco Biscuits; the world is a dark and damp place at times, it can suck the life out of your being if you let it, and this band's music can inject it back into you at the highest volume. For me, their music is fuel.
I'm not sure what the future holds for Camp Bisco but if history repeats itself the Disco Biscuits will continue to roll with the punches, stay in the moment, and exceed expectations. They've swayed hearts and minds before, and they'll continue to do so for years to come. Balance has been achieved in their individual and collective lives, and it shows every time they walk on stage. This isn't 1.0 Biscuits, at times I can't even agree that it's 2.0 Biscuits; their sound and style has morphed into something new, for better or for worse. Camp Bisco 14 kept the flame lit, while turning up the temperature higher than it was before. Many thanks to the Disco Biscuits and Live Nation for stepping up to the plate and knocking it out of the park. It was a weekend of exploratory experience and memorable moments of music, one that we'll all cherish for the rest of our existence on earth.
Long Live the Disco Biscuits
Next Stop: City Bisco in the center of the universe, New York City.