The Disco Biscuits Blow the Roof Off of the Fillmore for the Second Year in a Row
*Alot has been going on in my personal life, so I wasn't exactly in a rush to publish this piece. Since the time has passed, some things have changed, but most have stayed the same. I was actually curious to see how the mind interprets the live music experience after significant time has passed - well, here it is.*
The Disco Biscuits have impressed me countless times over the years. So this isn’t an entirely new feeling, I just thought I’d made it past the point of being in a state of utter disbelief. I guess not. This past weekend left me searching for answers that I won’t find for months. This band produces music that is more pure than most any drug in the world. When they hook you with their highest quality improvisation in the right live setting, you’ll be seeing them for years. Unless you’re unable to grasp the concept of executing highly original music, one brilliant theme after another. The Philadelphia trance-fusion band has a deep history of blowing out city venues for the past twenty years. From Silk City and the TLA to the Electric Factory and Tower Theater, then they made it to the Mann Center, and now they’ve already played six shows at the new Fillmore that opened last year (the most by any artist or band at this time). After a tremendous debut run last year, they kept up the momentum from New Years and played one of the most consistent runs in recent years. If you were in the building that weekend, you already know.
The band wasted no time on Friday night. The opening segment is focused from the start, with textured builds and breaks throughout. It isn’t the first time they’ve used Bernstein & Chasnoff to start off the night on the right foot. Whenever the Disco Biscuits sit into the first jam of the night without feeling the need to rush, they keep it simple and balanced, and that’s exactly what B&C was. As soon as they cranked it up a notch, Allen falls into a powerful multi-measure fill on his toms, it added a primal element in which Barber immediately synced with. Brownie solidified the following jam with a chandelier shaking bassline. Barber and Magner bounced sustained melodies back and forth as Allen added his E drums to the equation.
The musical dynamic moves into a smooth state of trance-fusion induced ecstasy. The band was using massive amounts of space to their benefit; getting to watch them work through jams like the transition into Voices Insane is always a massive treat. Flipping the emotions of the music on their head while keeping every fan on their toes. Brownie leads the transition with good placement of the opening riff as Barber and Magner join in on the parade. Voices Insane can be such an epic song when it’s placed correctly. The first verse felt especially dosed out. It’s such a bipolar song, teetering back and forth between a major and minor feel. In terms of leading the band in the right direction, Brownie may have been the MVP during the opening segment. He had fantastic vision and set Barber and Magner up for success on multiple occasions. The jam back into B&C was a well-executed sprint through the finish line.
The crowd was definitely pleased with the opening sandwich, next came The Very Moon. A classic off Barber’s highly praised rock opera Hot Air Balloon. It was by no means the best i’ve seen them play it, but the drop-segue into Give It To Me Baby was a surprise. The Swift Technique horns joined the band on stage for the Rick James tune. Out of the three covers, I’d have to say that it was the weakest of the run. It wasn’t bad but it didn’t hit me nearly as hard as Let’s Dance did. The fact that I’ve seen them do it with horns before definitely had something to do with it. The jam into the ending of Morph Dusseldorf wasn’t anything special compared to what took place during the following set.
The Biscuits brought the Swift Technique horns back on stage and opened with King of the World. It didn’t have the velocity of the 1/2/16 version with the Philly Stray Horns, but it was a solid start. I have to give the Disco Biscuits props for always giving the spotlight to up and coming bands and artists. They’ve always pushed acts that they believe in, whether it’s Camp Bisco or opening slots, even sit-ins. It isn’t always well-received by the fan base, but they’ve never let that stop them from branching out and doing the things that they want to do. When they counted off into Let’s Dance, I was hyped to see what they’d do with it. It’s a cover that I’ve thought about them doing on various occasions. I felt that Give It To Me Baby and King Of The World didn’t exemplify what the Biscuits can do with a horn section. Well, Let’s Dance did exactly that, and more. It’s no secret that Barber shocked almost everybody in the building with his vocal rendition of Bowie. I was astonished at how well he nailed this song. Even the way he played the guitar parts was very Bowie-esque. Not only did he command the band, he owned the stage. Magner’s synth mixed with the horn section extremely well, right before Barber made great use of his Wah pedal and led them into tremendous section of improvisation.
The jam out of Let’s Dance is a perfect example of how well the band listened to each other this run. It shows the simple yet efficient mechanics that they mastered so many years ago. Starting with an accessible style of improvisation, allowing the crowd to get comfortable and buckle up, before slamming the safety bar on your lap. Then the rollercoaster begins, except this isn’t Six Flags, and you have no idea about the twists and turns that you’re about to endure. Just as fans think they’re about to jump into a peak, they cut a corner and drop the hammer on everyone. Magner and Barber completely switch the energy and Allen comes in with basic yet ferocious E drums. It was a brain-splitting display of pleasant yet hellish proportions, a digital safari through the caverns of your mind. The band was drilling the darkness into walls of The Fillmore, more than a few people looked frightened, it was fantastic. As soon as you started to feel like you knew where this jam was going, they flip the hourglass and head to the water’s surface for an well-placed and well-played inverted Humu. When it comes to a lot of songs written by Marc Brownstein, the placement plays an enormous part of whether it’s pretty good or really great in a live setting.
If I looked at a setlist without attending the show, an inverted Humu wouldn’t be my number one guess as the best song of the night. And I’m not going to say it was, but the improvisation that came from it was spectacular, on both sides of the equation. Barber was smokin’ throughout a large portion of the transition out of it. You could tell that the entire band felt that way, Magner was feeding off of his energy so well, and Brownie was throwing his head back and forth like he was at an Iron Maiden show in ‘85. The way that the Disco Biscuits broke into Astronaut was the definition of rock and fucking roll (if you’re curious as to why I added the “fucking”, you should watch 3:24:55 on the YouTube stream). It was a moment that I won’t soon forget. Even though they didn’t play the SITA section, they gave us something that exceeded my expectations. This time Magner took the reins and propelled the band into an inverted Down to the Bottom. The transition was risky and the execution was impressive.
From Let’s Dance on was top-notch, but the Biscuits threw down a few especially well-developed themes during the inverted Down to the Bottom. They pushed it into some really aggressive territory, four minds moving as a single musical unit. They hit a handful of strides where they could not miss. Allen and Barber were specifically unified, Brownie followed while Magner drifted along with a spacious Fender Rhodes type patch before switching to Grand Piano. The ending of Confrontation was a good runway for the band to land on while closing out Friday night. As I exited The Fillmore, I told a friend that, “I was thoroughly impressed by what just went down and I couldn’t wait for Saturday.”
By the time Saturday night came around, I hadn’t slept a single minute. My eyes wouldn’t shut. I needed the music to be above average, the band was going to have to throw down a show that was bonkers from start to finish. Besides a handful of lackluster moments, they did just that. The opening Morph Dusseldorf didn’t electrify me like I was hoping, the mid-tempo jam felt a bit heartless, but Spaga got the job done. Spaga almost always gets the job done. If Magellan is Barber’s masterpiece, Spaga is Magner’s. From start to finish, it was a magnificent version of Magner’s timeless classic. That word has a lot of power behind it, just know that i’m not using it lightly. It was truly magnificent. Right from the jump, Magner was feeling it, alternating between piano and organ, adding to Brownie’s bassline. While the composition didn’t miss a note, the middle jam was injected with adrenaline. It only took two measures for Barber and Magner to come together with interlocking melodies. Barber’s riff was simple and ridiculously catchy; he did a good job at straying from the path with an exploratory vibe, before falling back into the jam with another layer of energy. He’s a big dude and he cradles that Parker Fly like it’s a toy. When Barber starts mouthing his riffs, buckle up because we’re going deep. Once they started to ascend, all bets were off, there wasn’t a single person in that building that wasn’t directly in tune with the stage. The entire jam was performed with an elegant patience that eliminates any possibility of useless meandering. It was quintessential Biscuits.
What happened next was unforgettable, I’ll listen to Ladies > Magellan for years to come. Brownie instantly started it off with a filthy picked bassline, Barber and Magner set up the play like all-stars in the NBA finals. My heart rate began to increase and I lowered my fitted - it was game time. Barber strummed some heavy open chords which Magner immediately picked up on. On one hand he added a layer to the bassline with his Virus, on the other he mimicked Barber’s licks with sustained synthesizers. Allen dropped the tempo down a few steps and Barber followed with focused emotion. It’s one thing when a bassist and drummer are locked in, but when a guitarist is playing notes the same rhythmic patterns as the drummer, it’s mesmerizing. Once Allen started the tribal grooves on his toms, I knew what was coming. I only hoped that they’d nail the transition. The chemistry between Barber and Brownie was highlighted during this section. Barber was undoubtedly directing the band toward the shore, at times the sonic ocean got choppy, but they went full steam ahead. Magner was able to sit back and fill in the gaps before identifying his place and seizing it. The energy that the band had created was brought to a peak once the Magellan composition hit. Barber was jumping up and down like a toddler on a trampoline, making his Gibson wail and weep. A sight that was most definitely reminiscent of the infamous Barber Freak Out from Camp Bisco 12. Except this time, his playing actually matched his theatrics, for the most part. Fans hugged and high-fived as they shouted the lyrics, “One with the raging wind, alive on the highest tide”. I may have been sleep deprived, but at that moment I felt like I could take on the world. Magner’s piano solo in Magellan could make a blind man see the world. It’s one of the most gorgeous sections of music in the jam band world.
Just as I thought they were going to end on a high note, they rebooted all systems and slowly accelerated back to the stratosphere. This time Magner was in the driver’s seat as Brownie and Allen added gas to the tank. And then out of nowhere, Philadelphia guitarist and longtime friend, Tom Hamilton joined the stage and plugged in. Watching Barber and Tommy play together is always a treat. He added some rhythm guitar that helped fill in the spaces. I knew the melody sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place my finger on it. Then Barber screamed the lyrics and I was in utter shock, Exodus by Bob Marley. This band may not tour but they never lost the ability to try new things and surprise their audience. Barber singing Bob Marley was stuck in my head for a week, for better or for worse. Magner added airy Virus licks over the dual guitars while Brownie and Allen kept the pulse pumping. Once they dropped out of the composition, Allen chopped the tempo in half which allowed for the three melodies to comfortably explore for a few measures. Brownie dropped the bassline again and they re-entered improv on top of a loose chorus.
Tommy is usually the lead guitarist when he’s on stage, but it was a real treat to see him take the role of a Bob Weir type rhythm guitarist. He did a great job sitting behind Barber during the transition into the ending of Astronaut. Barber was shooting him some hilarious looks, he was definitely feeling what Tommy was playing. After a few minutes, they entered the depths of darkness that the Biscuits (and Brothers Past) were always known for. It got real and Barber couldn’t help himself, it was like he was hypnotized, he started shredding like an absolute madman. Although he barely gave Tommy any room to breathe, he seemed to be having a great time in the center of the stage. He hit the ending of Astronaut like a game-winning bullseye in a North Philly dive bar, all in all the first set of Saturday had my eyes wide and blood pumping.
During the second half of Saturday, I felt myself getting tired, so a friend of mine gave me some inspiration, it helped. I took a few shots of Jameson at the bar and headed back to the dancefloor. After a floor-shaking intro to Mindless Dribble, we were off to the races. They started off the second set with no desire to force anything. They seemed to be super comfortable, it was the last set of the weekend, any and all pressure had deteriorated. Did anything remarkable take place? No. Sometimes the most simple improvisation moves you the most. The Biscuits rode the Dribble jam with a certain conviction, one that’s both smooth yet far from perfect - similar to Barber’s current guitar tone. I really respected Brownie during the second set on Saturday for multiple reasons. The Dribble jam is one of those reasons. He committed to a risky bassline that initially threw Barber for a loop, luckily Magner sank his teeth into it. It wasn’t long before Barber jumped on the bandwagon as well.
Now that some time has passed since the Fillmore run, my opinions on certain moments have definitely changed. The jam into the inverted Crickets was vicious and although the peak wasn’t 100% perfect, it more than got the job done. The true highlight was the industrial funk jam, it got violently disgusting, like a Law & Order SVU episode. I had the snarl of a blue-nosed Pitbull that doesn’t get walked enough. It was game time. All across the dance floor and on the balconies, everyone was bringing the ruckus. Then came the Basis ending, and it smacked people in the face - big time.
Spectacle is definitely a well-written song with catchy lyrics. But it all comes down to placement in the setlist, it can be an energy killer. This particular version had an illustrious intro that immediately stood out. It exmplified their obvious jazz influences. Some people weren't crazy about it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Then came the Basis For A Day, which featured a mystically intriguing bassline from Brownie in the beginning jam - one minor detail that was one of my highlights of the weekend.
The final transition of the night has unquestionably held up. The band moved toward Ladies with graceful durability, pushing and pulling on the hearts and minds of the audience - a great example of Type 2 jamming. Some fans have said that the second set of 2/4 is extremely over-fluffed, and that's okay with me. Is it the best set ever? Hell no. But it has some astonishing risks and glorious cohesiveness. A month later, and it still makes me move when I listen to it. To end the night with a Hope encore was appropriate and tasteful. A euphoric night-cap to an exhilerating weekend.
It's safe to say that the Disco Biscuits have added The Fillmore to their list of favorite venues. Not only do the musicians love it, Johnny R. Goode says it's one of the best venues to see them play. Now that the band has upcoming shows in Texas, Colorado and Illinios, they'll have a chance to gain new fans, especially if they play at level we've seen during the past year. If the Fillmore run was any indiction as to what 2017 will bring, it's going to be another great year to follow them around the country.
Long Live the Disco Biscuits.