Game, Set, Match: Disco Biscuits at the Westville Music Bowl

Fresh off a triumphant three-night headlining run at the world-renowned Red Rocks Amphitheatre the previous weekend, Philadelphia’s own Disco Biscuits took to the court at the new Westville Music Bowl in New Haven, CT.

Over June 4-5, an instant classic run took flight, with the venue making the best of the end of COVID-19 restrictions and raising the bar for outdoor venues everywhere.

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The former tennis stadium that had seen the likes of tennis legends such as Andre Agassi and Martina Navratilova perform at historic levels seemed primed for a special weekend of the improvisational, electronic-rock hybrid, nicknamed “Trancefusion,” that the band invented back on Halloween night 1997 when keyboardist Aron Magner introduced his Roland JP-8000 synthesizer. This one piece of hardware threw the rulebook out the window. Old and new fans embraced and smiled everywhere as the band sauntered out onto the stage for the beginning of what will surely be a signpost of this wonderful post-COVID iteration of the band.

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While everything felt new and refreshed, the connection between the band might be the very best that we know in the jamband scene (one cannot imagine how many in attendance had seen well over 100 concerts – when I say obsession I mean it). This was made increasingly evident by the fact that the set list for the evening had been co-written by two fans along with bassist Marc Brownstein. The opening “Safety Dance,” a Men Without Hats cover that has become a staple of the Biscuits’ live experience got everyone dancing right from the start.

As the first improvisation of the weekend coalesced, the slinky funk riffs of “Mr. Don” sprang from guitarist Jon Barber and already everyone in attendance was out of control with delight. The jam after the lyrical portion of “Don” started to slow in pace as the opening notes of “Rocket Science,” a newer Barber original instrumental created a long volley between band and crowd, a give-and-take of energy so crucial to the live experience and so missed over the last 18 months.

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With a slick little change the band locked into the fan-favorite of “Aceetobee,” which with its message of newfound freedom rang much more true than any time this writer can remember. The juxtaposition of the jazzy, darker key of “Aceetobee” and the pure 1977 disco vibe of the Giorgio Moroder/Donna Summer classic “I Feel Love” was brilliant and worked as a nice way to tap into the glorious vein of tennis puns permeating the last few months since the show’s announcement. However, that cheery vibe was short-lived as the band had a change of plans up their sleeve and violently closed out the opening set with “Confrontation,” the climactic zenith of Brownstein’s rock opera, “Chemical War Brigade.” 

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After a comfortably long break in the action the band surprised the crowd with an opener of “Sister Judy’s Soul Shack,” a personal favorite that had not been played since 12/28/17. Now I know they tell you that you can’t always get what you want, but it seemed as though the entire venue was getting what it needed. This little gift was quickly forgotten for the intense jam into the Biscuits original “Helicopters;” a song close to my heart as it was played at my very first show 21 years ago a few miles down the road at another classic New Haven venue, Toad’s Place.

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The band, keeping everyone on their feet, segued out of “Helicopters” into a massive, metal-styled intro to the maniacal tune “Munchkin Invasion” – the crowd erupted with delight. This segment of “Helicopters-> Munchkin-> Helicopters-> Munchkin” will surely be held high as a highlight of this magnificent run in the Elm City and explored the creative genius of keyboardist Aron Magner and drummer Allen Aucoin. With so many changes in both tempo and texture, this doubles team made it look easy.

As the set came to a close Jon Barber showed everyone why the return of “Sister Judy’s” was so special earlier as he shredded the ending and brought the crowd to ecstatic heights. A quick but happy run-through of the Brownstein tune “Naeba,” only its second encore appearance since being debuted back in ’09, sent the crowd out to chaotically search for Ubers and Lyfts with smiles on their faces – advantage, Disco Biscuits.

Saturday brought beautiful sun, slightly aggressive heat, but much less humidity – a perfect Connecticut day to enjoy the sights and sounds of the City while trying to consume as much a pizza from Sally’s, Pepe’s, Bar, and Modern as humanly possible (what can I say, I like the pie in New Haven). The party got started with “7-11” and never looked back. As the crowd settled into the stadium the band settled into a fierce jam that truly expressed the joy and elation painted across everyone’s face.

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After such a whirlwind performance the night before it felt as though the atmosphere was super patient and had a delightfully old school vibe, nothing was out tonight, we were all just happy to be ‘relaxin’ with the Disco Biscuits once again. Slowly, like an old friend’s voice you hadn’t heard in years, the opening notes to another 1995 Biscuits original “Pat & Dex” reared its head for only the second time since late 2015 (last time played was 5/26/18) and the song never sounded so nice. Maybe this song has a brand new mission and this won’t be the last we hear of it this year, one can only hope.

Once the three-part jazz odyssey was finished the band took a much-welcomed break as fans could not contain their excitement anymore and let the four guys from Philadelphia know that the band they put together was serving up aces that some more pessimistic fans might not have thought possible after such a long layoff – the band had kept itself busy during COVID closures though and it showed. The Frank Zappa classic “Pygmy Twylyte” got the crowd right back into it as the venue security, who were amazing all weekend, desperately tried to stay the ever-vigilant line judges in the pit – but the emotions were just too high.

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The jam out of the Zappa cover shape-shifted yet again, the guttural, repetitive bass line to the newer Barber instrumental “4th of July” gave the crowd a little bit of a respite before careening off into the ether itself in swirling synths delivered by Aron Magner – the guy is a mad scientist of melody and has more hooks than a New England fisherman. The patience was evident once again as Jon Barber waited just to the very last second of a beat to introduce the song “The Great Abyss,” an Aron Magner creation debuted once Allen Aucoin had taken his seat as Biscuit drummer previously filled by Dr. Samuel Altman. Barber’s two-note hook, affectionately named the “Beep Boops” by the crowd, was delivered perfectly on time and might be the smoothest segue I have heard in years. While short, the song propelled the Biscuits past all competition once again and found its denouement in the ridiculously well written Biscuit classic “Story of the World.” The energy in the stadium once again peaked and proved once this band just gets setlist development better than almost any other band I’ve seen outside of the Grateful Dead

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The final set of this instant classic run at the Westville Music Bowl began with “Strobelights & Martinis,” an instrumental harvested from a segment of improvisation the band first performed on September 1, 2001 in the famous New York underground venue The Wetlands Preserve. On Saturday, “Strobelights” served as the perfect opener to one of my favorite sets of music I’ve seen live from this band in over 200 shows.

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The jam was instantly ratcheted up by drummer and rumored robot Allen Aucoin, the guy is a machine – do yourselves a solid and take a few moments every jam to listen to exactly what is happening behind that kit and thank me later. As the main theme to the ascending action of the song “Above the Waves” crested the crowd and the band found each other in the midst of one of the more interesting techniques of setlist magic the Biscuits have ever introduced to the music world – an inversion. An “inverted” version of a song occurs when the band jams from one song into the middle or end of another song (depending on the number of parts in said song).

Once that newly introduced song ends, the band slides back into its beginning without missing a beat – it’s something they have been doing since 1999 and a hallmark of their unique vision of the future of music. The peak of this “Waves” was skull-crushing and I am convinced that the Westville Music Bowl left the ground, ala the Hampton Coliseum’s nifty little trick down in Hampton, VA. This was Bisco, a term coined early on in the band’s tenure to explain the ineffable quality of their music to cleanse one’s soul and wash away the stresses of normal life even if only briefly; it’s what makes fans come back time and time again.

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After the lyrical section of “Waves” was done (the only song with lyrics of the entire set) the jam took flight and once again Magner constructed a multilayered behemoth that ominously found itself toying with the penultimate jam song in the band’s catalog “Basis for a Day.” With its barbaric yawp of “lyrics,” the band and audience bellowed into the heavens and released so much pent-up energy that many were left stone still and gaping in disbelief at the level of intensity the evening had reached. The Tractorbeam jam, a dizzying use of samples and Ableton Live the band has been introducing in different ways, was vibrating the soul of everyone there. It’s better heard than explained.

With a sly return to the set opening “Strobelights” and an elated coda of “Basis,” the band closed what is going to be a fan favorite weekend for years to come. The whole deal was sealed with a note-perfect rendition of another new Barber instrumental named “Station” (perfectly suited as an encore) and a slide into the ending of the show opening “7-11.” 

They say one should always leave them wanting more, but for Biscuit fans there is never enough – never enough.

Review by Mike Walsh, Photos by Will Sozanski

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