Penn’s own jam band of the 1990s has a new sound (some call it Bisco), a different (and non-alumnus) drummer, and a growing fan-base (“this whole, like, people-following-us-around-the-country, circus type of thing”). Their headlining performance at this summer’s Jam on the River at Penn’s Landing may have been their most memorable ever—even if it was shut down after only 30 minutes. By Nate Chinen

Movement is a mantra at a Disco Biscuits show. And this one—at the Highline Ballroom, a new club in Manhattan’s splashy Meatpacking District—is no exception. The floor’s packed sardine-tight, but as soon as the band starts playing, there’s an amiable tumult of bumping shoulders and bobbing heads. From the vantage of a balcony, the crowd resembles a single undulating organism. An organism mostly made up of dudes, many with baseball caps on their heads.

Before long, the opening song—a driving instrumental called “Ten Ton Foot”—melts into another tune, “World Is Spinning.” A sizeable portion of the audience seems to know the lyrics, singing along with Jon Gutwillig EAS’99, the band’s guitarist and front man. (The tone is vaguely dystopian: “Field militia, Cold War blue / Broken glass on cobbled streets / Through TV cameras straight to you.”) Then a vamp-based coda gradually assumes a reggae lilt: the setup for another song, “Mulberry’s Dream.” Eventually that morphs too, the accent shifting from upbeat to downbeat, until what’s left is a bass-thumping techno groove. The baseball caps are vigorously nodding. On the outer edges of the crowd, and in the balcony, there are some elated whirligig moves.

It’s a far cry from the house parties and frat gigs of the early ’90s, when Gutwillig first started playing with fellow Penn students Marc Brownstein, a bassist, and Sam Altman C’96, a drummer. It’s even a far cry from 1995, when keyboardist Aron Magner, also then attending the University, came aboard, and the original Disco Biscuits—named after a street term for MDMA, or Ecstasy—were complete and intact. Back then they were resolutely a jam band, with a lineage leading back to Phish and the Grateful Dead. These days the group has a new drummer, Allen Aucoin, and a signature hybrid style, “trance-fusion,” that works better than you might suspect.

One more substantial development: The band’s fan base is better suited now to cavernous arenas than low-ceilinged clubs. The Highline, with its standing capacity of 700, doesn’t begin to meet the demand, even with sold-out shows on two consecutive nights. Essentially the Biscuits are playing there as a favor to the owner, Brownstein later explains. They’re part of an inaugural spate of bookings that also includes singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke, rapper-turned-actor Mos Def, British soul-siren Amy Winehouse, and underground-rock legend Lou Reed.

Any of those artists is likelier to turn up on a Billboard chart or in a mainstream entertainment magazine than are the Disco Biscuits, but don’t be fooled: The band’s profile, in certain circles, could hardly be bigger. And in an era when music is increasingly the domain of many interconnected pockets of consumers, that counts for an awful lot.

July|August 07 Contents
Gazette Home

Biscuits Rising by Nate Chinen
Photography by Chris Crisman

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Calm before the storm:
Aron Magner (left), Jon Gutwillig EAS’99,
Marc Brownstein, and Allen Aucoin
at Penn’s Landing.

Jon Gutwillig on the subconscious
Aron Magner on business
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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/28/07