Rising beyond stereo

Quartet is cooking up a four-way sound experience.

Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

Justin Timberlake may be bringing sexy back, but the jam band the Disco Biscuits is retrieving a relic of the ’70s.

“Quadrophonic sound hasn’t been popular in many years, but we’re going to bring it back,” said Biscuits singer, guitarist and songwriter Jon Gutwillig. “Roger Waters came through town, and he did it, because he’s from the ’70s. Our keyboard player went to the show and said, ‘Why don’t we?’ It turns out it’s not that hard.”

But the antique-cum-cutting-edge sound system won’t be debuted until the Biscuits’ New Year’s Eve show in Philadelphia. Fans who show up on Friday to hear the band play the Granada in Lawrence will have to settle for two-channel, stereo sound.

“We keep getting bigger, and I don’t understand it. Every time we go back to your town, we’re bigger than the last time we were there,” Gutwillig said. “It makes us feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

One reason for the unexpected success might be the following the quartet has built and the availability of most of their shows, bootlegged or otherwise.

“We were playing in Pittsburgh the other night, and I looked at the crowd and thought to myself, ‘I’ve never seen these people in my life,’ ” Gutwillig said. “But it was very real. They knew our music, knew the band members and knew our style. They learned about us the old-fashioned way: They got bootlegs from their older brother, the same way I did.”

If brother can’t provide, the band certainly can. Many of the band’s performances are recorded and available for sale on their Web site, http://www.discobiscuits.com. With no label, pressing, packaging and distribution costs involved, the Biscuits — made up of Gutwillig, bass player Marc Brownstein, drummer Allen Aucoin and keyboard player Aron Magner — are able to reinvest the majority of the earnings.

“The downloading has been incredibly successful. It’s afforded us the opportunity to spend money to improve the quality considerably,” Gutwillig said.

Online shows used to come from a DAT machine on the soundboard. Now the shows are picked up by microphones onstage, in the audience and on the board.

“The sound is as good as show boots have ever sounded. We can produce a high-quality concert recording in less than two hours,” Gutwillig said. “We try to have a show on the Net as quickly as possible without it sounding bad.”

Since the Biscuits keep all of their songs in their performance repertoire, the archives give fans instant access to the entire catalog.

“When I was a kid into Phish, I’d hear this song, (and) I had no idea what it was. It would take me a month to find out,” Gutwillig said. “Now I could learn how to play that song from tape 10 hours after I heard it. Everything is quick and hard-core now. You’re not waiting for something to come in the mail.”

A lot of the Disco Biscuit’s universe has accelerated since the band’s inception on the University of Pennsylvania campus in the mid-’90s.

“I used to walk around a public school singing songs into a voice recorder. I got a lot of great songs that way,” Gutwillig said.

“Making time now to write music is definitely an issue. Now I write faster, but there’s less time. I used to have all the time in the world, nothing going on. Now it seems I have to leave the country for a few months to get anything done, which I’m thinking about doing.”

You Want Moe Jams, You’ve Got Moe Jams

May 3rd, 2006

Fans appreciate band making its music assessable to them.

Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

Jam band.
The words evoke images of tie dyed clothing, long hair, VW vans and the aroma of perspiration and smoke.
Yet despite its improvisational and organic nature, the genre is diverse and its fans are committed.
Take Moe, the upstate New York quintet.
“One thing I’ve discovered is that people don’t come to our shows by accident,” guitarist Al Schnier said. “If you show up, you’ve meant to be there. Either you’re a fan, or a friend goaded you into coming, or you heard our music.”
Some of those conscientious first-timers are likely to be surprised by what they hear. The twin-guitar attack of Schnier and Chuck Garvey owes just as much to Eddie Van Halen as it does Duane Allman.
“The thing about the jam band scene is that there’s a wide spectrum of music,” Schnier said. “The Yonder Mountain String Band are essentially a bluegrass band, but they put on a long show that stretches out and is definitely not the traditional bluegrass structure. Then there’s the Disco Biscuits, who incorporate progressive rock, classical and electronica into their shows and music. And yet both are jam bands.”
Keeping fans in the fold is vital to a band that tours hard and makes records sparingly. Moe hasn’t yet released a follow-up to 2003’s “Wormwood.”
“Going into the studio is still something we struggle with,” Schnier said. “I’m not sure it makes sense financially. After 15 years, we’ll get some … radio play, but I don’t expect us to cross over into the mainstream. We can’t afford to pay radio enough to play our records.”
So on its Web site, the band states that “audience taping is highly recommended at all times.” Those live recordings give fans some new material to listen to, but even Schnier admits: “My favorite things to listen to are not live albums but studio recordings: ‘OK Computer’ or Abbey Road’.”
Moe returned to the studio not once, but twice this year. Early recording sessions resulted in “vague, lifeless versions” of songs the band first presented long ago in concert. So the band returned, “deconstructed the songs and exploited the studio,” Schnier said.
With one studio album in the can and a live DVD planned for fall release, new songs are floating around.
“We’re geared up to do a studio album of new material, which we can take out and premier live like a traditional band does,” Schnier said,. “We constantly have material. It’s a matter of scheduling it in. The other side of being in a jam band is that you’re always on tour.”
Fans will support what the radio won’t, provided they always have an outlet to tap into.
“You have to hit as many markets as possible with frequency,” Schnier said. “Make shows as reasonably close together as possible so people can come two nights in a row if they want.”
But if fans are encouraged to follow the band, they need variety.
“The same show every night doesn’t work. People won’t come,” Schnier said. “So you have to be willing to take chances onstage. And it follows suit that you’d better have a semi-decent grasp on an instrument to pull it off.”
Just as important is the relationship between band and fans, he said. Before there was Myspace or even the Internet, Moe gave away its music.
“If people came with a blank tape, we would give them a copy of a prerecorded show,” Schnier said. “The (record) industry doesn’t get it. If you make yourselves available, fans will build a lifelong relationship.”

Review: Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)


June 17-19, Clinton Lake, Lawrence (Kan.)

Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

Son Volt – Friday afternoon, Sun Down Stage
Jay Farrar’s revamped Son Volt made their regional debut on Friday afternoon to a collective yawn. Maybe it was the early hour of the show – 3 p.m. – but more people were greeting each other than grooving to the music. Son Volt Version 2.0 leaned heavily on classic material from “Trace” and “Straightaways” in its hourlong set, but were not as country-leaning as the previous incarnation. Uncle Tupelo was no where to be found._The new lineup is rawer and plays up Farrar’s classic rock influences – a sound closer to Joe Walsh than Joe Ely.

Matisyahu – Friday afternoon, Campground Stage
Matisyahu’s novelty – a Hasidic Jew playing reggae music – may have drawn people to his tent, but his music made them stay.
Dressed in a white dress shirt and glasses and sporting a full black beard, he may have looked like a rabbi, but he sounded like Toots Hibbert. Matisyahu’s groove spread quicker than a flu bug in day care, and though the tent was too crowded to give the music the motion it deserved, no one seemed to mind, least of all Matisyahu, who had to rest a hand on his head to keep his yarmulke from flying off as he jumped up and down. After proving his reggae credibility, Matisyahu dismissed the band and began an a capella beatboxing, incorporating dub, hip-hop and techno rhythms culminating in a call-and-response with the drummer.

Ozomatli – Friday evening, Sun Up Stage
Ozomatli isn’t afraid to toss a rap into a Spanish melody. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything musically. The10-piece band blended Spanish, rock, African, Middle Eastern and hip hop into the most contagious and diverse groove of the day. The 75-minute set drew heavily from Ozomatli’s latest album, last year’s “Street Signs,” but the band worked in a new song, a rap driven by a Middle Eastern flute. The crowd thinned considerably when the String Cheese Incident took the adjacent stage, but there were enough hands raised in the air and bodies shaking to show that these folks weren’t just killing time.

Junior Brown – Saturday evening, Revival Tent
Junior Brown took a mostly full and enthusiastic Revival Tent crowd honky tonkin’ early Saturday evening. Wearing an immaculate three-piece suit and backed by a three-piece band, including his wife Tanya Rae, Brown kept the stage banter to a minimum and kept his music plowing along like the Orange Blossom Special. His deep voice was cribbed in the same fertile tone as Johnny Cash’s and he deftly switched from traditional country melodies to a Spanish language song and even a surf guitar medley.
The highlights were all of Brown’s tasteful guitar solos, performed on his trademark “guit-steel,” a double-neck six-string and pedal steel guitar, and his drummer of 31 years, who was able to do more with his simple snare and cymbal set than most can from an entire trap kit.

Neko Case – Saturday night, Sun Down Stage
Despite having a large crowd assembled in anticipation of headliner Wilco, Neko Case did not go out of her way to win any new converts Saturday night. Case’s hourlong restrained set never moved above mid-tempo and failed to engage the patient crowd. Taken individually, each song was quite good, but together they became a long, lonesome lullaby. Like a mournful train whistle crying out late in the night, Case and her four-piece band wallowed in love gone wrong. The material was well-done, but best suited for an intimate club and Case looked a little overwhelmed by the crowd, which was polite in spite of the pacing problems and the fact that few of her subtleties transferred effectively to the lawn.

Wilco – Saturday night, Sun Down Stage
Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman and songwriter, had the sold-out crowd eating out of his hand from the opening strains of the first number, “A Shot in the Arm.” The 90-minute show only got better from there. Wilco’s expanded six-piece line-up, including two keyboards and two guitars, fought like siblings in the sonic mélange. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, creating the perfect atmosphere for each song. “Handshake Drugs” and “Kidsmoke (Spiders)” had thick walls of distortion that would have made Sonic Youth proud, while the folksier romps through the “Mermaid Ave.” material were warm and happy. If the audience participation bits failed, it was only because Wilco’s material isn’t really suited for it. Besides, Tweedy already had them at hello.

Proto-Kaw – Sunday afternoon, Sun Down Stage
Proto-Kaw will inevitably be compared to songwriter Kerry Livgren’s other band, Kansas, but the call-and-response in the opening number between Livgren’s guitar John Bolton’s flute should put those differences to rest. Formed in the early ‘70s, the band folded after failing to land a record contract and Livgren’s leap to a rival band and classic rock history. The septet belatedly reconvened when their archival demos were released to critical acclaim in 2002 and have since recorded an all-new album together. Proto-Kaw drew from both of those sources in their hour-long set that was enjoyed by the meager and decidedly older crowd that braved the mid-day sun for a set of progressive rock that somehow managed to replace arena-ready anthems with splashes of jazz and funk.

Jazz Mandolin Project – Sunday afternoon, Revival Tent
The Jazz Mandolin Project has more in common soncially with its good friends in Phish than it does the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, of which bandleader Jamie Masefield was once a member. Anyone expecting soothing acoustic jazz may have been pleased by the first number, but the songs grew more experimental and danceable as the set progressed. The quartet – mandolin, drums, upright bass and trumpet – is what the Flecktones would sound like if they were a jam band. The crowd was enthralled by the improvisation, but the bass and drums were sometimes so propulsive and funky one lost track of the mandolin. The 70-minute set culminated with the feel-good and danceable “Oh Yeah,” the best song of the night.

Old Crow Medicine Show – Sunday evening, Revival Tent
If, as the old saying goes, you can’t play sad music on a banjo, then Old Crow Medicine Show is the happiest band in the world. With half of the sextet on the jubilant drumhead five-string, the Crows threw a mighty hoedown as the sun set over the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival.
The Revival Tent was about half full at the start of the set, but by the end the tent was so full that people were dancing outside. The clappin’ and stompin’ were nonstop throughout the 70-minute set, which included classics like “CC Rider,” “Poor Man,” “Take ‘Em Away,” a cover of “Bluegrass Bob” Marley’s “Soul Rebel” and plenty of down-home stage banter.

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Wakarusa Music Festival (2006)

Wakarusa Music Festival (2007)

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Concert Review: George Clinton, May 6, 2005 at the Beaumont Club

George Clinton

Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

The list of 64-year-olds who can get away with rainbow-colored hair is a short one. Here’s an even shorter list: people soon to qualify for Social Security who can bring the heavy funk.
First on that list: George Clinton, who brought his band Parliament-Funkadelic before a near-capacity crown at the Beaumont Club on Friday night.
The show started with a keyboard solo from longtime Clinton cohort and fellow legend Bernie Worrell. From the beginning, the band show why many of Clinton’s tunes had so much influence but such little chart success. Songs like “One Nation Under a Groove” and “Bop Gun” got big cheers of recognition from the crowd and most ran well over 10 minutes.
Clinton didn’t appear onstage until an hour into the set, his multicolored locks covered by an all-white Philadelphia Phillies cap.
He slowly crept onstage, but as the set progressed he gained energy and his voice grew stronger. By the end of the back-to-back 20 minute jams of “Aqua Boogie” and “Flashlight,” he appeared invincible.
Throughout the show, the floor in front of the stage was a sea of hands, waving high in the air. Many of those bore a black “X” – too young to drink – a sign that Clinton and his troupe of two dozen performers are still attracting a younger crowd.
They weren’t disappointed. During the 3 _-hour set, Clinton and company interspersed their own hits with favorites from the backing singers, including a rap from Clinton’s granddaughter and covers of James Brown’s “Big Payback” and Genesis’ “That’s All.”
When “Atomic Dog” started up three hours into the show, it seemed like the perfect closer. Instead, Clinton followed that by launching into “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and a Little Richard medley. It was a perfect twist: After demonstrating why his music continues to influence the hip-hop generation, Clinton turned to the music that influenced him.
It could have ended there, but it didn’t. As Clinton and most of the band left the stage, a few stuck around and kept jamming. When they put down their instruments, roadies immediately started tearing down the stage, but the band members stayed out front, leading the audience in chanting, “We want the funk.”
By that point, anyone who didn’t have it already was never going to get it.

Keep Reading:

Concert review: George Clinton (2007)

Feature: George Clinton is bringing the funk

Concert Review: George Clinton heats up cold night

Review: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars (2009)