Onstage at the Great Plaza, the crowd is cheering Cypress Hill, a rap group best known for its pro-marijuana stance and its Top 20 single “Insane in the Brain,” which was a tireless radio staple in 1992. Backstage with the Biscuits, it’s a much more sober scene. Friends and family have been banished, and the band is mapping out a set list. Because some light equipment has been set up in the room, they’re also running down a few tunes.

One of them, “Sweating Bullets,” involves a syncopated loop that melts into a techno drone, with rippling keyboard arpeggios. (Like most of the band’s repertoire, it’s a Gutwillig original; while Brownstein and Magner each do a fair amount of writing, their songs take up a smaller share of the book.) Then there’s some talk of flirting with a cover at some point: the Guns N’ Roses power ballad “November Rain.”

“What do we have, two hours? I think we’re trying to fit in too many songs,” Magner says. “I mean, there’s gonna be a huge jam—two jams—in ‘Save the Robots.’”

Gutwillig looks up from the fretboard of his guitar. “Oh, I was thinking of trying to water down the ‘Save the Robots’ vibe a little bit. It’s a little scary.”

“We want it to be scary,” Brownstein retorts. Consensus is formed.

Polans enters, looking anxious, and informs the band that they have five minutes to get onstage. A few roadies dash in to grab the instruments. Gutwillig fires up a mist inhaler and quietly oxygenates; Magner starts jumping quickly in place, then stops.

“This band and our stupid pre-show rituals,” he quips. “Me with my jumping and you with your VapoRub.”

“This is a new one for me,” Gutwillig says. “I switched from weed to VapoRub.”

Brownstein, who doesn’t seem to have made a similar exchange, tends to his own rites of mental preparation. Aucoin sifts through a sheaf of music. A few minutes later, the band has headed to the stage, where they’re greeted with a welcoming cheer.

“Sweating Bullets” is the opener, and it delivers the right anticipatory jolt. But there’s something else in the air: an ominous gathering of cloud and wind that feels unmistakably like the onset of a storm. At the soundboard and behind the stage, people dart about with worried expressions on their faces. Across the river, the lights of Camden appear so fog-shrouded and mysterious that one roadie stops to take a picture with his cell phone.

Then it hits. Gale-force winds. Pounding sheets of rain. The storm whips over the crowd and, to an alarming extent, into the covered stage, where there are suddenly a dozen tarp-wielding crewmembers scrambling to shield the amplifiers. By this point, the band has started into “Save the Robots.” It twists around itself, the tempo drawing back for a synthesizer interlude and then speeding up for a trance breakdown. This is the band at its hypnotic and ferocious best, provoked both by the screaming crowd and the howling rain.

Nearly 10 minutes in, the song appears to come to an end, but it’s a head fake. The band shouts “Go!” and dives in again, faster and more feverishly than before. “Save the Robots” is fulfilling its destiny, sounding scary, adrenalized, intense. Aucoin slashes out a frenzied breakbeat while Magner, risking electrocution at his keyboard console, pumps a fist in the air. As if on cue, Mother Nature responds with a harder pummeling, which in turn evokes a fresh round of screams from the soaked and delirious fans.

From the rear of the stage, there’s something almost epic about the scene: It’s laughably easy to imagine the stage as a wind-tossed ship, the roadies as a desperate crew, the crowd beyond as a raging sea. The band, maniacally driven yet eerily unperturbed, could be Ahab in four pieces. (Or maybe Queequeg; it’s still hard to picture Captain Ahab naming a jam band after a party drug.) Gutwillig steps to the microphone to say that the musicians have been ordered off the stage—but then charges into “Munchkin Invasion,” which lasts a little over seven minutes before some nearby thunder-and-lightning volleys prompt park authorities to shut everything down for real.

The show has lasted just a half-hour, yielding what might be the most concentrated dose of energy in Disco Biscuits history. Weeks later, online message boards are crowded with comments like this one: “I wouldn’t trade this 30 minutes of Bisco for anything. One of the best shows I have ever seen.” Or this one: “yea this had to have been one of the craziest experiences of my life.”

Speaking by phone later in the month, Brownstein basically agrees: “I’ve never experienced anything quite like that before at a concert. Especially that ‘Save the Robots.’ That’s as good as we get.”

In some ways, the most exciting and maddening thing about the Disco Biscuits is the inconstant promise of moments like those. And as Brownstein points out, they get potentially less common as everyone grows older and starts settling down. Early in the new millennium, the band moved together to Santa Cruz, living an extension of their college years. They’re back in the Greater Philadelphia area now, and past that phase in their lives. Gutwillig lives near the Art Museum, and Magner has a house in South Philly. Brownstein resides with his wife and children in Wynnewood, on the Main Line.

But they’re also attempting to push ahead as forcefully as ever. They recently built a new studio in town, and will be recording extensively in the coming months. First, though, there’s a spate of summer festivals in Califonia, Colorado, Minnesota, and beyond. And in August there’s the sixth annual Camp Bisco, a three-day camping and music festival at the 200-acre Indian Lookout Country Club in upstate New York. Among the scheduled guest performers are King Britt, the eclectic Philly DJ; the Juan MacLean, the acclaimed techno-punk outfit; and Umphrey’s McGee, one of the better guitar-hero jam bands.

As hosts, the Disco Biscuits will naturally perform all three nights. And somewhere in the heaving crowd, someone will be praying for rain.

Nate Chinen C’98 writes about music for The New York Times. He is co-author of Myself Among Others (Da Capo), the award-winning memoir by jazz impresario George Wein.

July|August 07 Contents
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Biscuits Rising by Nate Chinen
Photography by Chris Crisman

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Essence of Bisco: One fan called the rain-shortened Penn’s Landing show “one of the craziest experiences of my life.”

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/28/07