[29 April 2003]
At the three-hour mark, when my feet began to throb, I realized why there wasn’t any opening band for the Disco Biscuits.
The audience at the half-full historic State Street Theater in Ithaca, New York was the usual new-age regurgitation of Woodstock that follows most musical acts in the jam-band genre. Shoved in between the rows of hemp were the washed up Jerry fans and the Disco Biscuits fanatics—you know, the ones wearing the band’s insignia on worn out hats and ratty T-shirts.
After a half hour of waiting, the lights dimmed and people leapt from their seats, making a beeline for the stage. I decided to observe from row five. The four Biscuits—Jon Gutwillig (vocals, guitar), Aron Magner (keyboards/vocals), Marc Brownstein (bass, vocals) and Sam Altman (drums)—took the stage, and within seconds of the first note, heads were a-bobbin’ and arms a-flailin’. (I have to admit I was waiting for someone to tumble off the balcony overhang). As the band played their first song, “Vassillios”, which slowly morphed into “Jigsaw”, from their most recent album Señor Boombox, it was hard to miss the maniacal grin across Gutwillig’s face. The crowd was bumpin’ and you could tell the band was ready to go. Though what may seem is not always the truth.
What began as an ebullient musical endeavor soon turned bleak, as the band slowed the pace. Gutwillig and Brownstein seemed to be playing “musical catch” with the chords, taking the rhythm of the jam nowhere. It was as if the Biscuits were trying to figure out what to play next, but weren’t all on the same wavelength. The crowd would routinely cheer—a desperate cry for fast, danceable music—but the monotonous slow jam continued. To some it didn’t matter—and I couldn’t help wondering if I was at the same concert as the kid next to me who, with his eyes closed, flopped his arms around like a gorilla in heat. Others whipped out their cell phones and some started conversing with friends. Boredom was lingering in the air.
The band must have taken the hint, because after a brief intermission, the second set picked up a bit. Multi-colored lights flashed on the three white triangles that acted as a backdrop. The Biscuits began with “Triumph” (another new one off Senor Boombox), which eventually turned into “I-Man”. Brownstein carried a strong steady bassline while Magner created a deep electronic sound varying from wind chimes to orchestral music. However, extremes seemed to be what the band was all about. Even their fast jams sometimes went haywire, speeding up to un-danceable tempos.
The crowd was moving more, but what amazed me was that the Biscuits’ body movement was slim to none. Sure, they’re not dancers, but a little hip-action, a head-nod or anything to show a pulse would have been a nice touch. Their performance made me forget that music is supposed to be fun. Whether it took throwing candy to the audience or featuring a special guest, the band was in serious need of a gimmick. They were also in need of some manners. Even after the numerous requests not to smoke in the building, Altman still lit up a cigarette.
As the band left the stage, the cheers for the encore were much like the music itself: few highs and many long, drawn-out pauses. But of course, the Biscuits returned to the stage. And surprisingly, after hours of strictly music, Gutwillig decided to speak. He thanked the audience for having them and invited everyone to their next show in Hartford. This to me was like reading a generic Hallmark card to the audience; it was lame and meaningless. A little dialogue—a connection of any kind between audience and performer—can only make a show better. In this case, the “thank you” was all we got. (Cue the one finger air twirl). Three songs in—at about the three-hour mark—my friends sitting next to me began to chant, “This is the concert that doesn’t end.” Lucky for them, fifteen minutes later, it did. The candy, coffee and soda that the concession stand was selling just didn’t cut it for me. After this show, I was in dire need of a beer.