The Boston Phoenix
September 14 - 21, 2000

[Music Reviews]

| clubs by night | bands in town | club directory | pop concerts | classical concerts | reviews | hot links |

Rave on

The New Deal and Camp Bisco bring jamming to the rave scene

by Michael Endelman

From outside the door of Lilli's in Porter Square, you can hear the four-on-the-floor thump of what I'm assuming is local DJ Mark Flynn working the wheels of steel. Inside, a crowd screams wildly and grinds frantically to ever-intensifying house grooves. But Flynn, it appears, has already stepped off the stage -- the wide-eyed dancers are, instead, vibrating to the sound of the New Deal, a keyboard/bass/drums trio from Toronto who are laying major wreckage on the jam-band circuit with what they call, "live progressive breakbeat house."

It's an accurate description, as the New Deal's approach lies closer to UK ambient house legends like the Orb or the fluffy trance of Paul Oakenfeld than to funky keyboard trios like Medeski Martin & Wood and Soulive. With house music's warm thump as their guide, the New Deal re-create the sound and feel of an epic DJ set, without samplers, sequencers, or drum machines but with an oceanic flow and a luminous touch that alternately shakes and soothes dance-floor denizens. "We are trying to re-create the energy, beat, and trancelike state of electronic music," explains drummer Darren Shearer over the phone from Toronto, "but we add a human element, by playing live instruments and improvising 95 percent of our sets."

Whereas the New Deal openly ape house-music signposts, both the "human element" and the improv æsthetic make the band a substantially different beast from your typical wax jockey. That comes across in a variety of ways. Keyboardist Jamie Shields pours out line after line of simple ear-grabbing melodies, dialing in wiggly tones with a stack of analog equipment. Bassist Dan Kurtz switches smoothly from low-end boom to upper-register bubbles. And Shields's drumming adds lightly shaded nuances of hi-hat tension, off-beat snare accents, and bass-drum pulse that shift from bar to bar. Sort of like a booty-shake version of John Zorn's Cobra, the trio work their way through their sets with a combination of hand gestures and symbols that cue everything from key changes to rhythm shifts to frequency sweeps.

Live: Guelph ON CA (Sound + Light Records) is the group's third concert recording (available from their Web site at and an excellent document of their expansive live sets. Of the two tracks (both more than 20 minutes long), the accurately titled "Glide/Deep Sun" is the masterpiece. It's a 25-minute journey that begins with Shearer's beatbox spittle; the "Glide" section exploits the trio's feel for ethereal trip-hop and noodly ambiance while slowly raising the BPM level.

"Bored with acid jazz and 15-minute guitar solos," Shearer is an admitted ex-Phish fan who played in "funky jammy bands" before the New Deal formed, in January of 1999. But he found the improv-rock world's ever-increasing reliance on wieldy fusion chops and extended über-solos lame and distasteful. After checking out some French house (Daft Punk, Alex Gopher), he's become mostly interested in "laying down fat beats." Funny thing is, those same hippie folks who cream to the Vermont quartet's spiraling wankathons are now found rolling the light fantastic at New Deal shows. And though the New Deal perform for both rave and jam-band audiences, their two recent Boston appearances -- at Lilli's in early August and at Harpers Ferry this past spring -- were filled primarily with clean-cut prep-school Phish fans, crusty trustafarians, and the ever present tape techies fiddling with DAT recorders and mike stands in the back.

My curiosity piqued by the New Deal gig at Lilli's, I travel eight hours south to a ski resort in Morris, Pennsylvania, to check out the second annual Camp Bisco All-Star Loon Fest. A two-day festival featuring a slew of bands who embrace a hybrid jam/rave æsthetic, Camp Bisco attracts the expected youthful jam-band crowd, but the addition of several well-known DJs to the bill (Wally, Soul Slinger, Danny tha Wildchild) also draws a number of club kids, who look conspicuously out-of-place in the wooded surroundings. Organized by the Disco Biscuits, a Pennsylvania-based quartet who are probably the most popular group on this scene, Camp Bisco is stocked with acts from all sides of this subgenre movement. So, alongside the Biscuits' gooey trance jams, listeners can get off on the skronky avant-dub of Fat Mama, the moody drum 'n' bass of Lake Trout, or the ethno-groove of Dr. Didg. I'm able to stay only for Friday night, but I hear enough ear-tweaking music to realize that this is just the beginning.

Fitting a mere four songs into 50 minutes, Fat Mama's cantankerous set solidifies their rep as the evil jazz cats and cerebral risk takers of the scene. These jazz-rock fusion dudes scarf down equal parts '70s Miles Davis, cavernous King Tubby, and spacy Mahavishnu Orchestra jamming, then regurgitate it all in a messy technicolor splatter. Although their Camp Bisco set starts with the twisty grandeur of "Beware of Bloodborne Pathogens," most of it explores a hypnotic and spacious trip-hop groove that fits the early-evening mood, including probably the only ambient-dub reworking of piano snob Keith Jarrett's "Spiral Dance." As their Camp Bisco performance and their excellent new CD Loadstar (Phoenix Presents) prove, the group are becoming a cyborg beast. They match the Old World sound of their drums/bass/horns line-up with a brave new world of electronic sound sculpting -- namely, turntablist Kevin Kendrick's needle wrecking and drum-machine abuse, guitarist Jon Goldberger's trashy echobox pulsations, and keyboardist Erik Deutch's fondness for analog blast and dissonant stutter. On Loadstar, minimalist Detroit techno meets burnished horn harmonies ("Knucklehead"), nouvelle klezmer becomes an experiment in musique concrète ("The Kichel Stomp"), and knotty Zappa-esque riffage dissolves into spastic 808 sputter ("Forbidden Fruit").

Like Fat Mama and the New Deal, the Baltimore-based quintet Lake Trout began as a funky acid jazz act. Stoked by the rhythmic exhilaration of mid-'90s drum 'n' bass imports, the group began to weave junglized riddims into their sound. With the mind-boggling Mike Lowry behind the kit, Lake Trout can easily replicate the spacy style of ambient/intelligent junglists like LTJ Bukem. And when they're hired to perform at raves, which is fairly often, that's what they do. Tracks like "Little Things in Different Places," from their recent live disc, Alone at Last (Phoenix Presents), show the band riding and rocking a jazzy jungle groove. But when they play jam-band festivals like Camp Bisco, which is also fairly often, they follow a darker muse down a rabbit hole of a different sort.

Mining the anesthetizing drone of acts like Spiritualized and the Jesus and Mary Chain, Lake Trout come off as druggy rockers for the glass-bong generation. Tracks like "P-R-E-C-I-O-U-S" (also from Alone at Last) contrast the rhythm section's tightly wound trip-hop/jungle grooves with multi-instrumentalist Matt Pierce's flute/sax/keyboard flutterings, singer/guitarist Woody Ranere's skyscraping slide work, and guitarist Ed Harris's shoegazing shimmer. What with a sound that's more moody than noodly, it's no shocker that guitarist Harris and bassist James Griffith give props to Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and Aphex Twin backstage after their set. Since they also evince a certain austere and spiky math-rock quality, Lake Trout are my trifecta bet for winning the coveted cross-genre triple crown -- they could easily perform for (and please) jam-band, electronica, and indie-rock crowds.

The Disco Biscuits are the populist evangelists of the scene, and their two Friday-night sets are met with the largest and most enthusiastic crowds of the evening. It's easy to understand why. The Biscuits are a comforting mélange of a distinctly post-Phish sound -- Bruce Hornsby piano arpeggios, fusionoid drumming, quirky mumbled lyrics, and lots of orgasmic climax moments -- with warm 'n' fuzzy electronic touches that make poofy trance superstars like Paul Van Dyk and Sandra Collins sound weighty. Both thoroughly uninteresting to outsiders and absolutely essential to hippie rock followers, the Biscuits are so successful because they deliver DJ culture to the uninitiated in an easy-to-digest package, just by replacing the tried-and-true virtuoso solo with collaborative sound sculpting and hypnotic beat science. For Biscuits drummer Sam Altman, it was an obvious progression. "Some DJs are breaking mainstream and a bunch of jam bands are breaking mainstream," he explains over the phone from Long Island. "Phish is on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and Fatboy Slim is on a Mercedes commercial. You put those together and this is what you get."

As Generation X stakes out its spot in the jam-band scene, the kids who grew up on everything from A Tribe Called Quest to A Guy Called Gerald are remolding the music to fit their interests. And as the carnivorous hippie rock scene has already gathered variations of earthy Americana, psychedelic blues, jazz fusion, free improv, progressive rock, retro-funk, and avant-jazz under its tie-dyed umbrella, the addition of eclectic electronica is no big deal -- it's just another flavor for the Ben & Jerry's crowd. In fact, the cliché'd raver rallying cry of P.L.U.R. -- Peace Love Unity Respect -- gels nicely with hippiedom's crunchy eco-ethics, and both groups share a love of all-night ass shaking. And to judge from the crowd at Camp Bisco, the increasing popularity of Ecstasy is only helping granola kids discover the pleasures of glowstick culture.

[Music Footer]