New Year’s Eve in the Big Apple is a special event by any measure. There’s just something about celebrating a new year in the city that never sleeps. There’s a festive buzz of anticipation in the air, regardless of the chilly temperature. But a Times Square packed with muggles is not the place to be for live entertainment if you’re a serious music fan.
The world’s most famous arena is the hotspot. It’s even hotter than usual this year because there are two overlapping shows taking place. First there’s Phish, headlining the arena for the third consecutive year with a three-set show culminating around 1 am. But then there’s the Disco Biscuits, also playing a three-set late show that doesn’t start until about 11 pm. This enables the most dedicated of party animals to catch five sets of jammy goodness – three with Phish and then two more downstairs in the theater with the Biscuits. It’s an unprecedented level of musical mayhem for the Garden. This is appropriate considering that the 2012 winter solstice has just passed, ushering humanity in to a new global age of potential transformation according to the legendary Mayan calendar.
The Disco Biscuits are fresh from helping to ring in that new age down at Mayan Holidaze, a four-day festival in Tulum, Mexico, from December 17-21. The Biscuits shared the stage with STS9 and Umphreys McGee for four nights of fiesta mas grande on the beach at the Dreams Tulum resort. This was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion considering how the Mayan calendar was wrapping its 26,000-year Precession of the Equinoxes cycle on the solstice. Mayan Holidaze was THE place for serious jam rock fans to welcome in that historic winter solstice. Attendees took advantage of the opportunity to party like the world might be coming to an end, just in case. A Mayan Riviera’s worth of booze was consumed over the course of those four days, yet only one drinking casualty was seen by this observer. It was a crowd of serious party professionals, the crème de la crème of the fanbase as it were. People who know how to handle their business. For it takes serious dedication (and dollars) to make the trip to the Yucatan. The Biscuits responded with some of their finest work, thrilling the assembled throughout the week with scintillating shows worthy of the unique occasion.
Now the Biscuits are capping off a five-night run here in New York City, so you know they’re in it to win it and end this momentous year on a high note. As one walks into the theater early in the second set, there is a sense of a band amid a peak performance. Bassist Marc “Brownie” Brownstein, guitarist Jon “the Barber” Gutwillig, keyboardist Aaron Magner, and drummer Allen Aucoin have risen through the jamband ranks over the years and positioned themselves in one of the highest tiers. They have a chemistry and sonic capability that have won them a dedicated fan base that will follow them over many a mile, chasing those magic moments and heady jams. The Disco Biscuits might not ever reach arena level status at this point, and their trance fusion sound is not for everyone. It’s a little less classic rock, and a little more futuristic space jam. But psychedelic, guitar driven rocking is still the main element of the formula. And their fans are just as dedicated as any arena headliner’s. In fact, the diehards will cite Bisco as their top favorite, even above the more veteran arena bands.
“Phish is too up and down, ebb and flow. The Biscuits just crush it nonstop and that’s what I want,” said a friend of this reporter down at Mayan Holidaze, a gentleman who has certainly seen his share of Phish shows, but who favors the Biscuits above all others. And when you want to talk about a band that delivers one high energy jam after another, all night long, the Biscuits definitely have to be at the forefront of any discussion.
A 17-plus minute jam on “Little Shimmy in a Conga Line” gets the second set going here, with the band clearly well-warmed up. Gutwillig and Magner sort of pass the leads around as if on a basketball team, while Brownstein and Aucoin maintain a steady and often furious rhythm. An ultra-psychedelic laser light show only raises the vibe higher, here on sacred ground (the Grateful Dead played this very room back in 1971 when it was known as the Felt Forum.)
It can be tricky for the uninitiated to tell where one song ends and another begins sometimes, with the seamless way the band frequently segues between tunes. The band hits the pocket in “Aceetobee”, where Magner’s psychedelic synths and Gutwillig’s nimble riffs seem to dance with each other above a deep groove. The band brings the tight jam all the way down to a true conclusion before launching into their classic “Memphis”, and it’s not long before they’re crushing another jam for all its worth with Jedi precision. This one builds in masterful fashion, with the quartet layering the jam deeper and deeper until the entire room locks into one collective space groove. The jam keeps building until it seems like the entire theater might soar off into the cosmos. It hits a peak where it seems the theater might combust, drops for a moment, then picks right back up.
The evening’s final setbreak results in a bit of a buzzkill when it’s learned that beer sales have been cut off due to “too many casualties”. This is where the Bisco crowd has to be docked a few “heady points”, for there were no such booze problems at the Highline Ballroom late shows with Marco Benevento on December 28 or Dead Sessions on December 30. It’s a shame that a few amateurs can’t handle their business, but of course this won’t stop the crowd from raging that third set. It doesn’t go quite as deep as the monster second set, but it’s not like any serious fans are ready to throw in the towel.
“Above the Waves” and “Magellan” find the band navigating some melty terrain as the dance party keeps on rolling before it all wraps up with an appropo encore of “Once the Fiddler Paid”. It’s after 4 AM when the party animals exit out into the chilly, yet invigorating New York air. The Empire State Building is lit up in psychedelic style, as if Phish lighting guru Chris Kuroda was put in charge (and who knows, he probably was.) It’s been probably the greatest New Year’s Eve doubleheader in music history, and what more could fans ask for as the momentous year of 2012 transitions into the new age of 2013 and beyond…