By Mark Miller
Camp Bisco IV (CBIV), held August 26 and 27, was dubbed “Tranceformation,” but that theme was not only a play on the predominance of trance music on display at CBIV, but also a nod to the departure of drummer Sam Altman from the Disco Biscuits, the hosts of the fourth staging of this unique musical festival that launched in 1999.
CBIV were the final shows for original DB member Altman. After a decade of providing beats for the Biscuit’s innovative melding of jam-band rock and trance rhythms, Altman is reinventing himself and attending medical school.
Though emotionally charged like Phish’s Coventry festival in 2004, CBIV couldn’t have been more different than the Phish finale (which was plagued by mud, bad weather, traffic jam nightmares and worst of all, some sloppy musical performances). CBIV limited attendance to 5,000, ensuring shorter lines and cleaner Port-o-sans. However, CBIV $10 parking fee didn’t allow attendees to camp by their cars, forcing them to drag tents and gear uphill to the forest camping sites.
There were two stages at CBIV, with Big in Japan being the highlight of the Friday side-stage lineup. Big in Japan is a side project of Lake Trout members, and while intense, they didn’t do much to distinguish themselves from Trout all that much.
Brothers Past were the first big draw on the opening day; the Philadelphia outfit has generated critical kudos, and though many of their live jams were unique, their songs are definitely an acquired taste and were not for the uninitiated Camp Bisco attendee.
Biscuits were served for the first time Friday night and the band responded with a monster first set sandwich of “Astronaut” > “Shem-Rah Boo” > “Astronaut” > “Stone” > “The Devil’s Waltz” > “Save The Robots” > “Hot Air Balloon” that did not pause for a moment. For those preferring a continuous stream of music, the Biscuits delivered. That first set was the singular sonic highlight of CBIV.
For those critical of the Biscuits in recent years, Set 1 also should have silenced even the most cynical tour-rat. It featured the Biscuits’ trademark interplay between guitarist Jon Gutwillig and keyboardist Aron Magner to create soundscapes supported by bassist Marc Brownstein and drummer Altman’s trance rhythms and grooves. This was especially evident in the second set performance of the Biscuits’ beloved classic “Basis for a Day.” And while some found it to be an average “Basis,” any “Basis” is welcome by Biscuits fans old and new (it’s kind of like “Dark Star” with Deadheads).
Magner and Brownstein’s side-project Conspirator played after the Biscuits, and demonstrated how the pair, along with DJ Omen, pushes the boundaries of instrumental trance. Toronto’s New Deal followed, featuring a New York City Dominatrix dancing on stage (you can get away with that after 2 am, even in rural Western New York).
The Benevento-Russo Duo were a side-stage favorite on Saturday. Drummer extraordinaire Joe Russo is rumored to be the Biscuits’ replacement for Altman, and a couple of hints dropped over the CBIV weekend did nothing to dissuade that possibility.
In contrast to most of the CBIV techno, Chicago’s Umphrey’s McGee threw down their special brand of ear-shredding prog-rock. Umphrey’s did make a bit of a concession to all the ravers with the beat-friendly “Nothing Too Fancy” that featured a biting “Stranglehold” jam and dual lead exchanges from guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger before returning to the looping groove.
The Biscuits’ Saturday night show, Altman’s last, was a little spottier musically speaking, which was understandable given the heavy emotions on stage. “I-Man” from the second set was the last great Biscuits jam with Altman. The spotlight zeroed in on the drummer and his kit as he rolled a solo intro into “Floes,” penned by Altman himself.
Then, a newly crafted “Salute Sammy” paid final tribute to “the Professor” as Altman is dubbed. The song brought cheers from the rain-soaked crowd when the remaining Biscuits promised to “keep playing ‘Floes’ for years,” indicating that rumors of a Bisco breakup were highly exaggerated.
The encore “Spectacle” and its chorus (“Isn’t life just a spectacle, one hand short of a miracle?”) seemed most appropriate. The four Biscuits came out for one final bow. The next time they take the stage it will be sans Sammy, with a new drummer and marking a new era.
After all the sentiment, it was time for all to get down with a trio of UK based DJ acts: Eat Static, Hallucinogen and Younger Brother (the latter two featured Simon Posford of Shpongle fame). Of these, Hallucinogen was the most mind-blowing, while Younger Brother providing a more optimistic ambient world-music backdrop that matched the oncoming dawn and the end of a rather special Camp Bisco IV.