SCI at 2001's Superhero's Ball
Once again the String Cheese Incident invites their fans to spend some of their precious time with them in the city by the bay as they return to San Francisco for a 3-day run at the Bill Graham Civic Center. The key word in this invitation is ‘Time’ because the theme of this year’s event is the Time Traveler’s Ball, another elaborate, stimulating meta-event from Peak Experience Productions, who have engineered the last several SCI New Year’s Eve series including the colorful Superhero's Ball last year.

Usually the band roams around to different cities to wrap up the year and welcome the new one. This year they’ve decided to come back to SF. Carrie Lombardi, publicist and one of the primary forces behind the wizard’s curtain at String Cheese HQ, told us, “San Francisco has always been one of SCI's homes away from home. It's such a beautiful city, and our friends in and around the bay area have been so supportive over the years. It's just one of those places that we can play and be close to as many friends as possible. And for those friends who don't live nearby, it's a great place to visit!”

In keeping with previous years, the band has gathered together some top-notch opening acts in Gomez and Michael Franti and Spearhead as well as Keller Williams on New Year's Eve. Lombardi explains the selection process for openers, “The list of those musicians who have opened for SCI is long and diverse. This year's New Year's openers are no different. Mostly SCI looks to share the stage with musicians who have in some way inspired them. Whether through their creativity, passion, talent, humor or originality, SCI openers have in some way inspired the band themselves. What better way to throw a party than invite some incredibly special guests?”

All of the music will unfold against a backdrop of time related themes. Johnny Dwork, co-founder of Peak Experience, explains, “At the Time Travelers Ball attendees can explore through adventure how we can make our time more meaningful. The goal is to play with all these different theoretical ways of time travel as a community experiment in reconsidering how each of us dances with time in our daily lives. This event focuses on two different aspects of time travel. The first is the classic science fiction or classic relativistic sense as in you’d find a wormhole or a time machine that would allow you to literally go backwards and forwards in time. The other type of time travel is the more alchemical version. In a room called a 'Course In Time,' we'll teach people or rather remind them, how to time travel for real. We found a process where people really do time travel.”

He’s serious as a heart attack about this. All of the preparations happening at the Peak website, where audience members can become involved now in “co-creating the magic of the event,” are geared towards the big count down. Dwork continues, “The goal is to get a critical mass of attendees to time travel on New Year’s as the clock strikes midnight. Can you imagine if 9000 people all time traveled together? The last time anything like this was tried were the dream-telepathy experiments that were done at a Grateful Dead concert in 1971 at the Capitol Theatre.”

We had the chance to speak with Johnny at length about this year’s plans and what it means to put on big concert events like this one. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 insurance policies are different, there’s no toy guns anymore and a growing worry about the strong arm of the current administration extending into the revels of concertgoers everywhere. As a veteran of many years of promoting shows, Johnny D has a number of insights into the challenges faced by anyone brave enough to put on a show in modern times. Despite the hurdles, the main thing one comes away with after talking with Dwork is a true sense of joy in the music and joy in the coming together of people in sacred spaces. For anyone looking to add depth to their concert going experiences you need look no further than here...

Dennis Cook: What are the main differences between a regular concert and what Peak Experience brings to the table?

Johnny Dwork: Myself and my co-founder at Peak Experience, Dan Cohen, grew into adulthood having transcendent experiences at certain musical gatherings. We then had other transcendent experiences like being in nature and doing theatre work. In college, I started combining all these things together and the result for me and my peers was we had much much more powerful experiences when we made more than just music available to people. So, we here at Peak Experience are of the belief that producing these sorts of events are part of what we can do on the planet to counterbalance all the negativity. These events offer more than just music. They offer the opportunity for audience members to become participants instead of just spectators. We have this old adage, “Every inch is the stage.” At the Burning Man Festival the line is “No Spectators.”

Cheesers Experiencing a Peak on Halloween
We craft a community wide adventure based on archetypal themes. It might be nature spirits, it might be the meeting of the lost worlds, it might be evolution or time travel. We’ll find a theme like that and we’ll create a three-day event in which the audience has the opportunity to explore all the fascinating aspects of these themes. In the process they can meet one another through our website and begin to co-create the event. Interestingly, a critical mass of the audience in becoming involved creates a substantive community. It’s no longer that you’re standing there at a concert and waiting for five guys on stage to either get hot or not.

It’s important to note that we honor the tapers and the rail riders, anybody who comes for whom the focus is not all this other extra-curricular stuff that we do. We work really hard so the people totally focused on the music can get better music. If you look at the history of Peak events most of the bands have done an extra set or special songs. They show up the way we do, a little more excited, a little more prepared.

The history has proven based on the testimonials and feedback we get that a huge number of people come to our events and have the time of their lives. Because we set this thing up as an adventure, and we tell people in advance, people think about this thing sometimes months in advance. People are making costumes. They’re conversing on how to make it better. They’re building props. We have a study group that is studying time travel together [interviewer bursts out in gigantic laughter]. We have a bunch of freaks that are turning each other onto Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies and all these other great astrophysicists and mathematicians. In the process of getting ready for this event they are making an extraordinary educational experience for themselves.

Dennis Cook: I want to dig into a few areas before we talk more about this year’s run. How did you first get involved with String Cheese since you’ve worked more with them than any other band?

Johnny Dwork: I am a veteran festivarian. I went to every single one of the Grateful Dead’s last 12 New Year’s except for one. I’ve gone to Oregon Country Fair since ’82. I’ve gone to High Sierra Music Festival for years. I love going on journeys where I can have an amazing time with people who are invited to be part of the magic that’s happening. My first experience of this was largely the Grateful Dead and then through festivals I was introduced to the String Cheese. Right away I could tell there was magic going on that was above and beyond your regular band.

I got to know the band and their management. I gotta tell you that their crew is as dedicated and focused a group of professionals as I’ve ever met in my life. They are totally committed to giving people the best time possible, totally committed to getting their personal stuff out of the way so their personal drama doesn’t interfere with the show. It’s such a privilege to be working with these people. They get what we do. From that very first one it was obvious we should be working together. It’s like water. Water always finds the lowest place to go.

It finds its own level. When you vibrate on the same frequency as someone it gives you a little chill when you realize that for the first time. You’re coming back to San Francisco again this year. Last year it was the Superhero’s Ball. How do you approach coming back to the same city again? What extra challenges does that pose in making the event as unique as the previous year?

I get this perverse thrill by intentionally reinventing the wheel every single time. When there are systems we find that work we keep them. For example there might be certain methodology that remains the same once we find one that works. Every Peak Experience is a theme. The idea behind that is we’re intentionally making the statement that it’s about HOW you approach the experience that’s most important. I’ve written a completely different theme (Time Travel) and we’ve found out what works and what doesn’t work at the Civic Center. This is going to be a very interesting New Year’s [Eve] because we’re going to be playing with time, warping time. The attendees should expect that we’re thinking outside the box.

What’s the importance of three days? You mentioned that earlier in the conversation. The number three is a big factor in quite a few spiritual traditions. It’s a sacred number with a lot of significance. But for you guys, why is three so crucial?

Hula Hooper at 2001's NYE
It’s like the difference between having a single meal with friends and spending the weekend with them. You go away with some friends to a cabin in the woods rather than stopping in your busy life and just having dinner with them. By the third day the chances are you’ve had some pretty deep conversations, your mind is focused with them, you’ve been in Nature. It’s the same sort of thing with this. Something happens with people when you bring them together for a few days rather than just one. This is very much an experiment. The three days makes it like a pilgrimage or a retreat. Folks travel from wherever and we create this space to dance with each other. That space reveals itself in all its nooks and crannies over a couple of days.

There’s an elaborate animation for the Time Traveler’s Ball on the Peak Experience site. What does it do to set-up the experience?

Again, no matter how great the music is, and keep in mind I’ve been to more than 2000 concerts in my life, because music for me opens the key to my heart…


…and it opens the key to my mind. I do some of my best thinking, creatively, when I’m dancing at shows. I get into that magical magical space. So, this is a String Cheese Incident but it’s also a Peak Experience. For each event we actually craft an intention statement and every member of the staff gets that and puts it on their desk. All day we look at that intention. Our goal is create events that are far far more inspiring than what people can get in their ordinary lives. And the intro at our website is a way to get people to realize this is no ordinary concert. We’re inviting you to go on an incredible adventure with your peers. No matter how great the music is there’s this other element. The bottom line is we’ve been blessed every single productions we’ve done. People come away and their lives are changed.

Here’s the thing, what is that human beings should be doing on this planet? My belief is that human beings should be getting together and living adventures, forming substantive communities and accessing joy and sharing it. As far as I’m concerned that’s what we’re doing.

I want to get into a couple added elements that as a promoter and organizer you have to deal with. The first is how are you dealing with security, especially in the wake of September 11th?

There is no way to convey to the general public how much more difficult and challenging the issue of security is since then. It is everything we can do to both make sure these events are appropriately secure AND to balance that by making sure our event attendees are treated with respect and given as much space as they can be given to freak freely. There are some aspects of the security issue that simply out of our control. Things in the world have changed since 9-11. It’s a Herculean effort. We’re working triple overtime to make sure we meet the security needs of the production and the celebratory needs of the audience.

The other added element I want to bring up is drugs. It’s one of those subjects that just doesn’t get talked about despite a persistent omnipresence in the scene. When I first heard the name Peak Experience I couldn’t help but think of the drug reference inherent in it. How do you folks deal with the role of drugs in an event like this because they are going to be there no matter what?

It’s interesting that you bring this up because there’s a move in State and Federal Governments to pass laws where concert promoters could be arrested or put in jail for up to 9 years and fined up to a quarter of a million dollars if anyone at the event is found to be using any illegal drugs.

That’s part of the reason I brought this up. We’re moving into a period of draconian kind of enforcement. There’s no gray area in the legislation and there’s not a lot of understanding of diversity in our culture despite the prominent role of drugs in mainstream culture for decades now.

In following up both your and my comments, I can tell you it is my responsibility to make sure everyone in the venue is safe. So, that means I need to be an educator, teaching people options for them to have fun responsibly. I also have to be responsible in terms of the government. Because if I put on an event where no is hurt but one person is arrested afterwards I could go to prison. In some respects I have this almost impossible job where I’m caught between a rock and a hard place.

I believe the founding fathers chose their words very carefully when they said freedom to pursue happiness. At the same time, I would like for people to do whatever they wanted as long as it brings them pleasure and doesn’t hurt other people in the process. But I’m in a position of responsibility so I have to deal with police and medical services. You’ll notice at the Peak Summer events that there’s a certain number of people that are there to baby-sit people back down to reality if they’ve had a little too much rather than just shipping them off to a hospital. We also have the Jellyfish support groups for people who feel they need the support to stay sober.

The bottom line is our events are designed intentionally so you can have Peak Experiences without drugs. I’m not saying that I’m against drugs or for drugs, I’m just saying that we design our events so you can have an amazing experience without them. I would hope that anybody who would come to an event AND would alter their consciousness would do so responsibly. I also believe that there’s a very important word that is not prominent enough in our culture and that is the word DISCRETION. That’s really the most important thing. Obviously, you can look at the Drug War and it’s a miserable, miserable failure.

There’s a line on the Peak website that caught my attention. I wanted you to elaborate on it. It reads: "We base many of our events on new mythic interpretations of perennial wisdom." This is very different approach than saying, “Hey let’s put on a show.”

Basically, I grew up being exposed to all these myths that seemed to me to be outmoded from the world I live in. What I realized is there are universal truths inherent in these stories. When you recast them in modern terms they give a great deepening to one’s life in the here and now. What we do is we pull these myths creatively from the past and extrapolate out the patriarchy and the superstition and the fear and we turn them into giant mythic theatre that the audience help give birth to. In the process people get the chance to live these myths so the universal truths inherent in them become apparent to them in a way they can use them.

The String Cheese Incident performs December 28th, 29th and 31st at the Bill Graham Civic Center in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now at Ticketmaster and directly from SCI Ticketing.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | San Francisco Bay Area
Go See Live Music!



[Published on: 12/16/02]

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