Thursday, February 16, 2017

Disco Biscuits/ Ratdog/ Phil Lesh and Friends, SPAC 7/22/01

I came to Albany in Fall of 2000 to attend SUNY. I came up with a big group of my high school friends and we had a pretty memorable first year. I did not do well in school. My parents were less than pleased and offered me a couple of options to avoid murder. I chose what I considered the best one: take some summer courses and try my damnedest to turn around my academic career. My buddy Justin and I sublet an apartment on Washington Ave in the heart of the 'student ghetto' as its known and got jobs as mobile frozen dessert vendors as we liked to call it. We sold Italian ice, lemonade,  Ben and Jerry's bars and soft serve at craft fairs, Albany city events and the like. It was not a glamorous or well paying job.

tie dye I bought on lot, now part of a t shirt blanket courtesy of momma dukes
My stub. Funny story about the ripped corner I'll share at some point
Justin and I shared an appreciation for jambands with Phish being the main act we had in common. We both dug the dead though and with the SPAC show coming up, decided to go and hatched a scheme: we'd buy two jugs of Guido's (yes his name was actually Mark Guido) homemade Italian Ice and hustle it on lot. We made a crayon drawn sign advertising our wares and tried to figure out a good cooler situation. Business was initially slow. I wasn't the best hype man at the time and Italian ice isn't exactly a standard lot treat though we figured it was a decent bet on a hot summer day. As the afternoon progressed the ice started getting soft and more and more folks were heading in. I think we were definitely shy of breaking even at that point but weren't exactly stressing, we were doing it more for fun than to profit. So we decided to start giving it away so we could go into the show. A funny thing happened though which makes sense now that I understand human nature and deadhead nature better: once we had a crowd of folks taking free yums, someone in the group would invariably give us some money. It kept repeating and soon enough we had made about double the money we had made actually trying to sell the ices hahaha.

We made our way into the show during Ratdog's Friend of the Devil. We had missed the entirety of the Disco Biscuits set and 2 songs from the Ratdog set. Its amusing to me looking back that I missed the biscuits set. Less than 2 months later I'd see my first biscuits show at Saratoga Winners (9/7/01) which began a lifelong relationship/ obsession with a lil jamtronica band from Philadelphia.

The Disco Biscuits Set
Terrific Audience recording from  Tim Danielson 

 Aceetobee, Shelby Rose, Helicopters, Jigsaw Earth (1), Home Again 

(1) With 'The Tunnel' tease

My memories of the other two sets is spotty at best and nonexistent for the biscuits set since I didn't make it inside so this review is coming from my 2017 listening experience. Much like the Grateful Dead, the Disco Biscuits often struggle to translate the full experience of one of their shows to a shorter festival style set. I wasn't expecting all that much out of this set so was pleasantly surprised to find it to be pretty awesome and a good representation of what the band was bringing to the table in 2001. They start with Aceetobee at a leisurely pace indicating a comfortable band. They shook of their warm up jitters through the composition and found a plaintive and ethereal space for the jam. I think it was a cool choice for them to start this set with an extended jam rather than trying to catch the audience with a quick standard composition. The jam was very representative of the 2001 sound and stretched this Aceetobee out to nearly 15 minutes.

 Shelby Rose comes down the pipe next. The tempo is relatively fast for the tune. I haven't listened to much 2001 biscuits lately so can't compare to other versions from the era. This song is one of the best examples of how this band plays with tension and release style jamming. The jam within is a dark minor key, often drum and bass style onslaught that peaks into a triumphant major key led by virtuoso guitarist Jon Gutwilig. He ultimately controls the peak and release of this element of the jam and I've heard versions where he dips back, tantalizes and nearly tortures the audience holding back that key change. It can create some furious, at times dissonant soul rattling improvisation. This version is much more concise and reigned in at a paltry 10 minutes, yet still manages to convey what the song is capable of.

 Helicopters could be considered the definitive piece of music for the Disco Biscuits. It best exemplifies their sound and its mix of dark electronic music with classic jam improv. For me, begining my biscuits journey in 2000/01, versions from this time period very much remind me of my falling in love with this band. All songs were standalones from this show so they just launch right into helicopters. The jam out of the compositions is way darker, more aggressive and raging then I could've thought possible from the tight festival set format. They really rip it apart while keeping it to a tight 9 minute version.

Jigsaw Earth comes next and is the heaviest hitter of the night at 16 minutes. They start off with a Tunnel tease from Gutwilig during the opening instrumental. I love the format of Jigsaw with several jam segments that often expand out and accelerate way out of the original shuffling groove of the song  until it has to be reigned back in for the next verse. This track often goes very drum and bassy like Shelby, especially in this time period. On this night, each jam takes the improv out a bit farther in this version and they manage to showcase their talents for the crowds filtering in for the dead guys. Before playing their last song bassist Marc Brownstein talks about seeing his first concert ever at SPAC (Men at Work haha) and thanking Phil and the rest for bringing them out on this tour as it was their last night.

They launch into the appropriate Home Again for their final track and gave me an incredible dose of nostalgia for my sophomore year of college. I did manage to turn my bad streak in school around that summer, doing well in a history and archaeology class. I especially enjoyed the archaeology class (after failing it that past spring haha) as my teacher was a grad student who was digging Maya sites in Mexico and got me really interested in Mesoamerican archaeology. Through 2001-2002 I took more archaeology classes and really enjoyed them. I had some direction! I also got more and more passionate about seeing jamband shows fueled by the fast internet speeds on our campus and the explosion of file sharing. All of a sudden we had access to tons of live music, including shows we'd just seen! Hearing this Home Again while walking into work brought me back to walking to class from Colonial Quad with my headphones on and spinning whatever  biscuits CD I had just burned. It was a truly inspiring and formative time for me. Here 15 years later I'm an archaeologist by trade whose passion for live music has only deepened.

Chris LaPorte's Nak300 Audience Recording 

 Blackbird, Me & My Uncle, Friend of the Devil, Bury me Standing >Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,  Playin in the Band > Uncle John's Band > October Queen > The Deep end >
Even So >He's gone > The Other One >Other One Jam >Sampson and Delilah, Terrapin>Uncle John's Band 

The jam into Blackbird is quite lovely to start out. Once again we have a wonderful, vibrant audience recording. I recently learned that some of the best audience recordings are from outdoor venues since there's no walls for the sound to bounce off of which was contrary to what I had previously believed. So neat to keep learning. An excellent Me and My Uncle leads into Friend of the Devil which is where I entered the show all those years ago. This was a really cool moment for me. I grew up listening to American Beauty the most of all my dead stuff and those songs I tend to cherish especially so seeing one of these tunes as my first ever live dead experience was pretty special. Kenny Brooks on Sax and Jeff Chimenti on keys enter into the mix on FOTD. I didn't take note at the time of just how jazzy Ratdog is but listening now I really enjoy it and how different the sound is than many post-dead projects. I'm an unrepentant Dead and Company fan so its also cool to know I saw Jeff way back when. I absolutely adore his playing.

The Ratdog original Bury Me Standing comes next and I can definitely dig this tune. It's cool that Bobby was still interested in writing new music and wasn't just playing dead tunes. They segue into an uptempo and swinging Good Morning Little School that is a radical departure from the Pigpen led version I'm used to. The Bob Weir classic Playing in the Band comes up next and starts an extended block of segued tunes that sees the band stretching out and showing off their chops. Rob Wasserman is still playing double bass with a bow which gives this song a very unique feel compared to what I'm used to. They spiral fully into intense psychedelia before giving way into Uncle John's Band. Kenny Brook's leads on sax during the opening of UJB is quite lovely and manages to suit the song very well. During the between verse jamming, The Chimenti/ Brooks interplay shines again. On the segue out, Mark Karan contributes some tasty lead guitar as well which is a nice change as Brooks has been primarily holding down the lead lines.

October Queen with its musical homage and lyrical content really hitting that jazzy swing of New Orleans erupts from Uncle John's. Including in this segment is The Deep End instrumental which I'm not familiar enough with Ratdog material to really differentiate from the rest of the tune. The smoky Wasserman/ Weir track Even So segues very nicely out of October Queen. I'm very familiar with this tune after Dead and Company played it summer of 2016 as a tribute to Rab Wasserman shortly after his passing (check out the jambase article here). I get a definite feel for the Ratdog sound of this era during this jam segment. The jam takes a dark and spooky turn that segues very nicely into He's Gone. This band can definitely play really nice. The crowd was naturally very excited to hear to dead classic and they hit it at just the right funky pace for a summer sunny day.

The pace starts picking up out of the end of He's Gone and it becomes clear even without the Phil Bomb that we are heading into The Other One. Jay Lane plays expertly off of Brooks with Bobby organizing the charge. They only do the first verse before segueing into an 'Other One Jam' with Jeff getting weird on some synth effects followed by some sick Wasserman basslines. So interesting to hear classical bass wailing dead tunes! Out of the rumbling of Jay Lane's drums came the familiar pattern of Samson and Delilah. Such a natural segue I'm surprised it never occurred to the dead! Brooks switches up to alto sax which lends a much more rock and roll feel to the jam than the more jazz oriented baritone he uses for the majority of the show (note: I may have my sax names confused). I really enjoy his playing in this band. It reminds me a lot of what Leroi Moore added to the Dave Matthews Band.

The band next slowly noodles in to a reflective and lovely Terrapin Station. While other dead renditions from Ratdog are very different than what I'm used to hear with Dead and Company, this Terrapin could easily be confused with a Dead and Co version. The tempo rapidly accelerates as the band segues back into Uncle John's Band, a lovely way to close out a fun, well-played and diverse set.

Phil Lesh and Friends 
 Ben Ehrsam's Audience Source

Jam >Shakedown Street ( with Wheel-ish Jam ), Music Never Stopped >Good Lovin, Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys >Tennessee Jed, Tons Of Steel
Jam>Viola Lee Blues ( with Mt. Jam tease), Duprees Diamond Blues, Night Of 1000 Stars > Spacey Jam >Lucy In The Sky > Jam >Masons Children, The Wheel >The Other One >The Wheel >Sugaree, crowd / donor rap / band intro's
Casey Jones 

It's pretty fascinating to have 3 different beautiful sources for the three different performances on this day. All of them are terrific and have slightly different flavors. I have slightly more vivid memories of moments from Phil compared to Ratdog but mores-so what songs they played as opposed to memories of the music. A nice patient jam in leads to rowdy Shakedown. Who doesn't love a shakedown opener? They get pretty deep into it including a wheel jam. Next up Bobby steps out and joins the friends for blistering Music Never stopped>Good Lovin'. I keep noticing just how much faster these tunes are played compared to Dead and Company. I shouldn't be so shocked considering this was 15 years earlier. Everyone is much older now. The jam in Good Lovin' gets especially fiery for Bobby's vocal improv at the end Warren is really shredding some lead lines as counterpoint. 

I'm unfamiliar with the traffic tune they play next but it has a nice slinky feel and some solid vocals from Warren. As the band departs into the jam, Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes expertly trade lead lines. Phil is really starting to stretch out here too with some very active lines. Baracco steps in with some choice key playing as well towards the end. The Here Comes Sunshine tease next has its intended effect of teasing me and leaving me wanting to hear that tune. I guess I'm not going to complain about a Tennessee Jed though. Rob Boracco sounds great on vocals not trying to impersonate Jerry but doing Jerry's version justice. They do some taffy pulling with the tempo of the jam which is pretty fun to listen to. There's no doubt this is a tight, professional band. To wrap up the first set, I love Brent. You can Tons of Steel me any day Warren. 

The second set gets started with a Jam> like the first set with nary a hint as to where its headed from the jump. Viola Lee opens with all the promise this beast can bring. Lesh is really strutting on the bass line and it is funky as all get out. Both guitarists get weird quick then commence to shreddin. It would be very challenging to track all of the meanderings in this 27 minute opus but suffice is to say they go many places, see many things and perhaps stop at a hot dog cart because Warren got hungry. There was a Mountain Jam tease. Dupree's is a tune that likely was not on my radar in 2001 but one that I enjoy very much these days. It's a well-played if all too brief version. In researching the next track Night of a Thousand Stars, I was excited to find out its a post-Jerry Robert Hunter piece! I adore Hunter's lyrics so its neat to have some I didn't know. The jam goes pretty far out, sheds the structure completely before easing into Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. This was a really fun moment for the audience. Definitely one of the energy highlights. On the re-listen even though I'm not really the biggest Beatles fan, I gotta say they nailed it. Next comes Mason's Children making for a one two punch of 60's flower power culture.

Mason's transitions in the loveliest of ways into The Wheel. One of the prettiest moments of the set. It's a brief visit, the wheel doesn't really intend to slow down and we hurtle on into The Other One. No question this time; Phil drops dem bombs. It's a whirlwind visit though. They song coming around a few times before scurrying back into the Wheel. They don't stay there too long either, its Sugaree time! Always a favorite of mine, I respect any version over 10 minutes. This version comes in around 11 minutes. Enough said. 

 After Phil's organ donor rap and band intros the friends rip through a nice Casey Jones encore before calling it a night. Looking back from the perspective of a 15-16 years spent since this night as a live music fan, I'm truly impressed with this night's line up and the stellar music played. Fans were treated to an up and coming jam band with a novel style showing folks what they could do, a unique take on the dead's music led by Bobby with a team of the bay area's best and Phil playing with some of the absolute top players in the game. Click here for the full gallery of images shot by Jonathan Rabhan I used for this post.