Devastating earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, and Barber broke his wrist before spring tour! Following the news in mid March of Disco Biscuits guitarist and front man Jon Gutwillig’s tour threatening injury it seemed as though the end was very nigh for spring plans of the faithful followers of the Philadelphia electro jam outfit the Disco Biscuits. But fret not Chicken Little. The sky is not falling just yet and, as the old saying goes, the show must go on. In true showmanship fashion the band chose to forgo any show cancellations and instead decided to enlist the help of some friends to fill in the shoes of their sidelined axe man. Longtime friend and fellow Electron (side project featuring Marc Brownstein and Arron Magner) band member Tommy Hamilton took some time from working with his bands Brothers Past and American Babies to help out. This move seemed like a no brain-er to both the band and it’s fans. Hamilton has proven both a vast knowledge of the Disco Biscuits catalog and an ability to jam comfortably in the trance fusion style the Biscuits are known for.
The 2nd, and a bit more surprising addition, came in the form of established jam rock guitarist Chris Michetti, of the band RAQ. This was an unexpected addition for two reasons. One being that he’s taking the 2nd lead guitar in a band that generally only had one and the other being that, honestly, there isn’t an incredible amount of fan crossover between the two bands. Michetti did not fail to disappoint and found his niche quite quickly.
Fast forward to April 16th. With several shows under the new lineup’s belt and with the return of Gutwillig, albeit in a guitar-less, limited capacity, the newly expanded sextet made their return to Richmond to play a two night run at The National. Richmond has always proven to be a great scene for the Biscuits and the whole sub genre of live electronic music based jambands, which is bolstered by the work of locally based EQ Productions, who provided the late night festivities for the run. Stepping into the first night of the run, it seemed like business as usual with the same faces and atmosphere that have followed the band since their mid 90’s inception to the scene. As John Lee and the J.L.E. played through their opening set the attendees waited in anxious anticipation to see just how up to par the new incarnation was going to be.
Now, no one can deny that the Disco Biscuits fan base is one of the most faithful ever seen, but they are very critical, sometimes to a fault, of their favorite band. Change is not something this scene adopts to very quickly, as seen by the recent divisive force caused by the release of their new cross over album Planet Anthem. Fan’s were split amongst those resistant to the band’s new electro pop and hip hop influenced sound and those that accepted the band’s changes as necessary growth in a scene that, by most accounts, needed it. Regardless of which side fans were on, they made it to the live show, which is were this band undoubtedly shines. As the band finally took the crowded stage they were met with a gracious pop. With no introduction (and none necessary ) the band slowly eased it’s way into a Flash Mob opener. It’s become some what of a common thing these days for the Disco Biscuits to open up shows with one, or more often two, of it’s newer songs. Although it sometimes leads to a slower start to the shows it’s an excellent maneuver on the bands part to get fans used to these new songs. This was an uncannily good Flash Mob however and got the band into it’s groove quickly. Hammilton’s lead chops in the composed sections proved that not too much had changed, with even his tone sounding eerily similar to Barber.
Where the changes did start to become evident is during the outro segue into Mirrors. Now, personally, I am a fan of large band arrangements but I am weary of two lead guitarist stepping on each others toes. Michetti and Hamilton pulled it off beautifully I thought, playing their space very well. One guitarist, usually played a more rock tinged style that would take a simple 4 measure theme that would be constantly built upon. The other guitarist would generally accentuate whatever the other guitarist was doing with a trance inducing, more rhythmic style that played nicely off of Arron Magner’s dance heavy melodic accompaniment. Somewhere in this mix of sound lies Jon Gutwillig, provided tastefully understated fills in the right position with the help of his MIDI controller.
Next up came Kamaole Sands, a much older songs whose juxtaposition with the newer songs came as a welcome return to that which felt comfortable. Marc Brownstein bopped along to the happy composed sections as Hammilton was given his first run at a big solo. Hamilton did a great job but it became painfully obvious that the band changes were not going to be without their hiccups as the band faltered in several noticeable places to keep it together. But this is the Disco Biscuits and given the immense amount of time that improvisation takes up in any one of the places some bumps along the road are to be expected. The composed section soon gave way to a great funk based jam, with Michetti stepping up a bit more and proving his worth with him and Hammilton weaving in an out of each other. The funk continued till the tempo slowed down a bit as the band segued into Air Song, one of the most accepted of the new tunes and a song that has show excellent potential for improvisation.
Here, Magner starts to shine as he proves he has some of the busiest hands in the scene, providing several overlapping tones to the delight of spunions and any robots that happen to be in attendance. As Magner took the reigns he slowly morphed into Humuhumunukunukuapua in one of the patient and seemless transitions that this band is known for. The band took a quick departure from the light, airy jams that dominated the beginning of the show and start working into their darker sound in the 2nd half of Humu, to many fans delight. Drummer Allen Aucion seems to come alive in this section, providing a dance laden beat that would work it’s way through several phases before Hammilton slowly reintroduces the main Kamaole theme with the rest of the band
following behind. As Kamaole reached it’s peak I once again felt that this is where the Biscuits are going to hurt the most. Not to downplay Hammiltons work but the peaks just don’t get to the places they can when Barber is donning his axe.
Next up came a melodic and completely unnecessary Magellan reprise. I will never understand the placement of this song as it tends to suck the energy out of a room quicker than an EMP blast in the middle of New York. At least it fell on the end of a set, giving attendees a quick jump on the bathroom and bar
lines. The next set started off with a song from Planet Anthem entitled Big Wrecking Ball. This song has received very mixed reviews from the fans and it seemed like the same could be said for the crowd at The National as it did not seem to be that greatly accepted. Again though, this is the best placement for introducing new songs that fans need to get used to. Clocking in at under four minutes the confused looks on the fans faces turned to jubilation as the keyboard intro to M.E.M.P.H.I.S. graced the Bisco faithful’s ears. Barber showed he doesn’t need a guitar to have stage presence as he sauntered around the stage providing the vocals and enjoying being the Plant as opposed to Page for a change. The MEMPHIS jam was more of the same, but executed with a bit more precision. Michetti’s work in this song reminded me very much of a Brendan Bayliss (guitarist and front man for long time Bisco friend’s Umphrey’s McGee) with a heavy arpegiated guitar groundwork given life with use of pedals and quick, frantic fills.
It was obvious that the band on stage felt quite comfortable as they surprised many of the Disco Biscuits fans by moving slowly into Basis for a Day. Now for those not familiar with the Biscuits repretoire, playing Basis for a Day without Jon Gutwillig is tantamount to the Allman Brother’s playing Blue Sky without Dickey Betts. It’s something that shouldn’t be done often, but if it is done, you better be on your a game. I wish I could walk away from this saying my mind was changed but it’s not. The complicated composed sections of this song just didn’t sound nearly as good without Barber. I’m all for taking chances but you don’t pull a flea flicker with your second string quarterback at the helm. As they moved away from the composed sections and into the next song, Catalyst, things started sounding great again with the energy really picking up about halfway through his near 20 minute dance odyssey. As the energy continued to build it was noticeably working towards something. That something slowly became the Great Abyss, an intense energy driven piece that tends to always whip the
kids into a dance party frenzy.
The band rode this energy right back into the 2nd half of Basis for a Day. Again, however, the band fell apart and could not be saved by the funky slap bass of one Marc Brownstein. The absence of Barber’s phsycedellic flurry of notes that seem reminiscent of an evil carousel anthem just can not be pulled off as well when done with a keyboard. All was not lost though as the band moved into another improvisational section, providing the dark, evil funk jams that this song provides time after time. Brownstein lays down some serious funk throughout the entire jam and helped the twin guitar assault, backed by some serious Aucion action, roll into the best peak of the entire night.
The band left the stage after the Basis conclusion to thunderous applause. It wouldn’t be long till the band came back out on stage to play one of the best encores I have seen from this band. Generally, I am an anti encore kinda guy. I feel as if the energy gets lost in the time and the band usually spits out one or two uninspired, short, tunes. I said, this encore was great though. It started off with On Time, one of the most well received of the Planet Anthem songs. Magner’s vocoder laced vocals help provide this potential club anthem with a welcome poppy feel. Clocking in at just under 10 minutes it seemed as if that were all but Brownie provided the signature laugh that provides the intro for The Gorrilaz “Feel Good Inc”. This was only the 2nd time the band tackled this cover and they pull it off quite well. Plus, any song that let’s Brownie rap has automatic entertainment potential.
The general consensus after the show seemed to be one of a pleasant surprise. Expectations seemed to be exceeded for the most part with the only noticeable faults coming in the peaks and the intense composed sections. The Disco Biscuits proved that they can roll with the punches (no pun intended) but I think Barber’s return will be quite the welcome one. Kudo’s to Michetti and Hamilton though. They took on quite the daunting task and came out smelling like roses and with a few more fans in tow.