I would have loved to spend both nights with the Disco Biscuits at Higher Ground. Unfortunately‚ it just wasn't in the cards this year. I did make it over to see the second set of Friday's performance‚ and‚ in that set alone‚ there's more than enough to talk about.
It had been a while since I'd seen the band play‚ and it was refreshing as hell. Despite being cultivated in a neo-hippie scene, the Biscuits stroll into town carrying a punk rock ethos. They don't bring hula-hoops and rainbows. It's not polite or clean. They take the stage reeking of Philly and walk with a dash of irreverence. I find a lot of beauty in that and in their sloppiness. Say what you want‚ but there's nobody like them.
And they have the extremes surrounding them too. They have one of the most loyal fan bases in the world‚ and on the other side, they inspired a movement -- at times to irrational ends -- that loves to hate them. It runs surprisingly deep‚ and the Biscuits seem to enjoy living with that identity. Maybe some of that negativity mixed with a few uninspired shows over the past few years has rubbed off on me and made me question whether or not this band is evolving. It was clear after about ten minutes of seeing this set at Higher Ground that none of that shit matters. This is live music that is played with fire‚ and the Biscuits are fucking great at what they do.
I know the old joke about the Grateful Dead has been applied to the Disco Biscuits in recent years: What do Deadheads say when the drugs wear off? "This music sucks." Yeah‚ it's a good one‚ but I walked into Higher Ground sober and left sober‚ and while I was on the inside‚ the music transported me. The committee in my head called a meeting and the Biscuits were the soundtrack. To say the least‚ I felt a surge of renewal. The band and audience were already loose‚ the walls sweating and breathing and alive. When they launched into "The Very Moon‚" things got cookin' -- especially with Barber's guitar playing. It was fluid‚ down-and-dirty and even bluesy at times. He rode some edges‚ taking electrifying twists and turns‚ along the way finding plenty of happy accidents. As much as the Biscuits have become masters of psytrance music, they still possess the ability to play beautifully and hit unforgettably triumphiant crescendos.
After moving healthily through the classic "Vassillios‚" they settled into some intricate jamming that landed in a section of "Above the Waves." They brought it down‚ with keyboardist Aron Magner layering one tasty lick after another‚ the band filling in around it like a polyrhythmic machine. The music felt ambiguous‚ swimming along in an area where at any second it could become really dark or light and bouncy. It was fantastic improvisation‚ with the biggest disappointment being that as they played softer and softer you could hear the buzz of chatter in the room become louder and louder. It felt like nobody was listening as closely as the music demanded. Perhaps that comes with playing a room that has two bars in it.
It was great to hear some tunes from the band's early days -- "Vassillios" and the set closer‚ "Mr. Don" -- which brought me back in time to when they were green and one of the voices of a vibrant live music scene that was based around improvisation and searching for a new sound. It was also a reminder of all this band has been through and how they survived a scene that died a long time ago when people learned how to pervert it‚ market it‚ overexpose it and mix in a lot of bullshit. It made me think about an interview I did years ago with Tom Hamilton from Brothers Past where he spoke about how fucked up the music industry is. He used the example of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Those bands came up with a few great ideas that caught fire and resonated deeply with people‚ and ten years later we ended up with Creed. Similarly‚ there was a scene that blossomed around bands like Phish‚ Aquarium Rescue Unit‚ and later‚ moe. and the Disco Biscuits‚ and now there's "jam" radio stations that play these bands next to State Radio and O.A.R. Not that there's anything wrong with these bands; it's just a completely different approach and level. And by association, it feels like a sad joke where everything in the music is still there, yet the magic got flushed down the toilet.
But the Biscuits are still one of the champions that transcend the abuse of jambandom. They're a musical unit that operates on their own universe. And after living with this music and seeing this band perform for over ten years now‚ it's great that I can walk into a set of music at Higher Ground on a Friday night and find a ton of surprises.