Wheeeeew let me just catch my breath for a minute... Five String Cheese Incidents in five days is an exhaustive endeavor, even for the young, fit, and energetic. Since I am none of these, I just need to take a deep breath and rest my aching feet a second here before I begin to express the magic witnessed over the last few days.
What really stands out to me now that this crazy whirlwind has subsided is how the String Cheese Incident has grown and evolved in the last year. Many bands settle into their success by acknowledging their strengths and drawing power, and then stick to that winning formula. SCI has taken a more productive approach, by taking musical chances and finding new directions for their sound without abandoning the core musical experience that has driven this phenomenon.
Bill Nershi has added two electric guitars to his arsenal. What I found most exciting about Bill's electric additions is the absolute ball that he seems to have while bending different notes and sliding his nimble fingers up and down the fret board. Not that I am a musician's psychiatrist by any means, but he really seems to be reborn and reinvigorated through his newfound exploration of uncharted electric sounds, and of course his signature acoustic runs are still in the forefront of the String Cheese experience. Throughout the run he would switch back and forth between all three guitars to suit the song's mood, and it seems that his comfort zone on the electric guitars seem to be growing. At one point even Michael Travis gave Billy a round of applause from behind the drum kit, for his ever-growing electric prowess.
Keith Moseley has added a much richer and fuller sound simply by adding power and size to his speaker stack. His sound is deeper than it has ever been, and his playing really stood out as the backbone of the groove. Keith has also been toying with the harmonica, a la Bob Dylan, but seems to be saving this addition mostly for new song standout "Tinder Box."
Kyle Hollingsworth, always on the cutting edge of sound manipulation, has added a delay loop of some sort that adds some really interesting effects. I am not a musician, and I must concede that my technical knowledge of equipment is lacking, but I am able to recognize new sounds and musical textures. Kyle has even been tuning into different radio stations during a song to sample voices and sounds that he then manipulates and loops to add a really interesting dimension to a variety of songs. He also has been using a vocal contraption (again my lack of technical knowledge shines through) in conjunction with the sampler to add his own voice into different musical spaces. Much of his interesting electronic work can be heard between tracks in SCI's newest album Untying the Not.
Listening to the album before this run of shows, I thought how different the sound is from the typical SCI experience. Now that the tour is over I realize that the album is not that disjointed from the true SCI experience, but rather this album is a snapshot of their continuous evolution and exploration as a band here at the end of 2003.
The last time I saw SCI was at their Halloween run in 2002, so I've been out of the loop for more than a year. In the six years that I've been on the proverbial bus, this was by far my longest absence, and I was curious to see what the past year of playing and developing their newest batch of tunes had brought to the show. Now as I sit in my hotel room, I can honestly say that they've continued to grow as musicians, and their newest batch of songs have developed into musical vehicles that inspire and can even be showstoppers.
A total of 84 different songs were played over the course of the run, with minimal repeats except for a few of the newest tunes. The strength at which each of the individual songs was played was very impressive. String Cheese's repertoire has grown dramatically over the last few years, and there had been some critical discussion among fans about the quantity of new songs outweighing the quality of the compositions. Yet this run erased any doubt in my mind about the newest batch. Songs I never thought could open or close a set were used to tear down the place. Many of the newer songs have grown in impressive ways over the last few months, and the older classics have added innovative dimensions with the newest aspects of the band's sound.
It is also important to note the wonderful job that the food collectors for the Gouda Causes/Conscious Alliance food drives were able to do over the course of the run. Bags upon bags of canned goods and children's toys were collected, and everyone seemed pleased with the turnout. When anyone brought in ten cans of food, or gave a ten-dollar donation, they received a beautiful poster. There were even three different types of posters to collect, so return donators were common. This is just another example of SCI's continuous attempt to bring projects that better the community in conjunction with the fun and festivities of the typical SCI experience. Who said we can't better the community, help the less fortunate, and have fun at the same time?
This whirlwind of euphoric jubilation, unbridled musical exploration, and human connectedness started five days ago in the quaint town of Eugene, Oregon. This show was a special benefit for the Ken Kesey memorial statue being built in Eugene. The McDonald Theatre is an appropriate venue, since Kesey was a part owner. Prior to the concert there was a special gathering inside the venue to celebrate the life and times of the late great author and revolutionary thinker. The venue was stocked with all kinds of hors d'oeuvres, and the scene inside the venue was incredibly friendly and welcoming. During this reception members of the band were casually strolling around chatting with whoever caught their attention. It was a really well organized event, and the intimate setting made it all the more enjoyable. It was interesting that Kyle Hollingsworth was standing at the Moving Records table listening to the previous String Cheese show. Moving Records is a music production company that tours with SCI and records the shows to be available literally later that same night. Kyle seemed to be listening intently to the tunes for a few minutes. Overall the pre-show event was very intimate, people were friendly and in great spirits, and it was nice to have the ability to explore the venue a little early.
But we were all here for the show, and the Incident did not disappoint. A few pranksters from days past introduced the band, including Ken Babbs, who acted like the evening's MC, and even Mountain Girl made a brief appearance on stage. The stage was adorned with flowers of all colors and some of the largest and most beautiful crystal clusters that I've ever seen. The first set opened strong with inspired versions of the reggae jam tune "Shantytown" and the classic jazz funk standard "Freedom Jazz Dance." Both songs were chock full of searing, high-energy solos and tremendous interplay by the band. The entire first set was outstanding, including a smooth transition from "Sweet Melinda" into "Sitting on Top of the World," and the Dylan classic "Quinn the Eskimo," which carried one of the various Kesey references in the lyrics seen throughout the night. A special note needs to be made about the "Desert Dawn" closer. I admittedly was not too hot on this song when I first heard it at my last cheese shows in Vegas. It seemed a little too poppy and clean for my taste, but this version had fangs, and got downright nasty. This song grew up a lot in one year, and I really loved it.
The second set was just more pure cheese like the first. The set opened up with Ken Babbs telling us all a story about Ken Kesey and the rest of the Pranksters from back in the 60s. The band backed his story up musically to highlight different points. He began to tell us about a time when Ken Babbs, Neil Cassidy, and Ken Kesey, to name a few of the Pranksters involved, were standing on a side of a road deciding whether a cow can be lit on fire. Babbs then explained how after the cow ignited, it burst into flames, and the Pranksters jumped back on the bus, where Pigpen from the Grateful Dead was lounging in the back with three naked women. The story was a little disjointed, but we are talking about the Merry Pranksters after all. So as he continues his tale, he explains how Pigpen is on the back of the bus, and these naked women are all around him, and that Pigpen all of the sudden began to sing "Lovelight" to the women. At that point the band led by Babbs' vocals jumped into this classic tune for a few minutes, and Babbs also quoted a few lines from "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" before the story ended.
Now on to the real second set. The classic jazz standard "Birdland" started things off and was well played but nothing over the top other than the fact they sandwiched the classic bluegrass tune "Big Mon," inspired by Bill Monroe, in the middle. Nothing like a little jazz standard > bluegrass standard > jazz standard to acknowledge their various musical roots. "Sandollar" featured some outstanding playing from Michael Travis. His ability to play a full drum kit while simultaneously adding his own percussive beats, makes his versatility stand out at every show. I'm always amazed at how he takes over a drum solo on the kit and effortlessly leads it to the congas and then back to the kit without missing a beat. Other highlights in the set were a "Texas Town" that featured local musician Scott Law on guitar as well as a terrific two song punch of "Water" > "Restless Wind" to close out the set, that were both well played and flat-out rocking. During the transition jam, Bill Nershi began to quote the Beatle classic "Something," but he changed the lyrics to "There's something in the way she moooooo's me," a quick reference to Ken Babbs' crazy cow story.
Both sets were rock solid from start to finish, and we couldn't wait for the encore to find out what kind of musical cherry SCI would place on top of the night's musical sundae. Fortunately for us they decided to serve another full course of music instead of a quick treat, and they played a full five-song encore. "Lonesome Road Blues" contained some terrific interplay between Michael Kang and Scott Law (now on mandolin). "Dirk" was hard and heavy rock that was really well played. Michael Kang dedicated the Peter Tosh reggae classic "Stop that Train" to Ken Kesey. His vocals were outstanding on this one. Everyone left the stage except Bill Nershi who decided he just wanted to keep on playing. He played a solo acoustic version of "Lost Highway," which hadn't been played in three years. If all this wasn't enough to create a perma-grin on our collective faces, the rest of SCI returned for one final encore of the traditional favorite "I Know You Rider." All I can say is WOW!
On to my current hometown of Portland, Oregon. Since this is a northwest run of shows in December, surprisingly enough there was rain along the way. Actually it rained every leg of the road trip, but that's to be expected. I even stopped into work after returning from Eugene, to see some students (I'm a teacher at the local jail, but that's a whole other story). Anyway the show was being held at the Convention Center where two SCI New Year's celebrations were held back in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001. Suffice to say there is some strong history between SCI and the fans here in Portland. The Convention Center had been under construction, and the original setting for this show was supposed to be in Salem, but the stars aligned just in the nick of time to bring the festivities to Portland proper. All in all this was a good SCI show, but after the insanity of the Eugene show it was hard to compare. The first set was chock full of SCI classic tunes including the rare "Lester Had a Coconut" and a "Missing Me" > "On the Road" combination that contained a beautiful transition. A raging "M.L.T." was the high point of the set. "Best Feeling," with Billy switching to electric guitar and set closer "Tinderbox," which seems to be one of SCI's new favorite musical toys, was the combination that closed the set. "Tinderbox" has really grown on me, and it features a really catchy bass line from Keith Moseley, whose deeper and richer sound may be due to the addition to his amplifier stack, or maybe just his own ever-growing confidence in his nimble bass playing. None of the jams were over the top, but it was a solid set nonetheless. I enjoyed Kyle's use of his new sampler that gave the beginning of "Best Feeling" an interesting twist, an experiment that would be seen again throughout the extended weekend.
The second set brought more of the same, good jams, but nothing that was earth shattering. What really made the set memorable was the addition of banjo player Tony Furtado for a few songs. Tony is a tremendous player who is really fun to watch. Bill Nershi introduced him as "Tony Furtado on the trance guitar," which seemed to be very fitting. The "Looking Glass" > "Valley of the Jig" set opener was really strong, especially since both tunes are in their respective infancy, and yet both were able to spark the initial energy needed in a strong second set opener. "Valley of the Jig" is just so much fun to hear live. Really is there anything better than a little Irish disco funk, especially when Tony Furtado is in the mix? "Rhythm of the Road" was rocking as well. Both the initial jam of the song as well as the climax at the end peaked at a furious pace, and Portland was in a dancing frenzy during the second ascent. "She Don't Say" was standard, but always appreciated. I found the "Shaking the Tree" to be one of the more interesting musical moments of the night. The structured part of the song was slowed down a bit and drawn out, which I found initially awkward, but the concluding jam was huge. It took flight and carried the song places that I thought were reserved for only a few monster tunes. They closed the set with fan favorite "San Jose," which was a huge relief for me, since I hadn't heard this one since the incredible Warfield shows from 2000 with the late and great Baba Olatunji. It was a long time coming for me, but it was well worth it. Tony Furtado came back out for this one, and it was a fun and rocking version of a great song. They encored with "Can't Stop Now," which is a fun quick paced tune that featured Furtado's playing once more.
Seattle was next up, and thankfully we had two days of music to settle into the city. As always we battled showers on the drive up, but it made this northwest run all the more authentic. We made it up in time to grab a quick bite, and to head on down to the Paramount Theatre. This theater is absolutely gorgeous. From the ornate designs that cover the ceilings to the detailed carvings and decorations that streak up the wall and the fully decorated Christmas tree that hung from the ceiling upside down--even the water fountains had cherubic carvings as the base sculpture--this venue is truly an amazing sight.
The first night was a pretty good show overall, with some amazing moments. The first set started off well with a nice "Lonesome Fiddle Blues" and "Search," but neither of the jams were particularly memorable. The first set's major highlight came during the end of the run of "Latinismo," "Close Your Eyes," and "Howard." The transition from "Close your Eyes" into "Howard" featured some more electronic experimentation by Kyle.
Now on to the second set, and the jam of the weekend. "Land's End" started things off in a BIG way. One of the things I noticed that really impressed me about the "Land's End" was the fact that there was a slight flub during the composed section of this instrumental before the jam in the middle. Instead of letting that miscue derail the composition, Michael Kang used the odd notes as the impetus for a different take on the traditional playing. It was in no way a negative; in fact the smooth transition into an improvisational interpretation on an arranged piece was most impressive. Yet this is not the reason that I am highlighting this song. It is all about the peak jam before the reprise. The jam just kept climbing higher and higher, and faster and faster without loosing any technical aspects of the music. I felt like I was dancing so hard that the soles of my shoes might melt to the floor. Check this "Land's End" out, it is hot hot hot. From this monster song they transition into "Ms. Brown's Teahouse." The initial moments of this fan favorite were different from years past, possibly a little bit slower, and it seemed to lack some of the power of previous versions. It is a song that I always enjoy, but this particular version didn't quite hit its full stride. It was solid, but after "Land's End" it was almost a breather. The boys dusted off a cover of the bluegrass standard "Temperance Reel" and followed that with Travis singing the Pink Floyd classic "Fearless." The set really dropped deep in the funk when Keith Moseley took us all into the world of Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon." Fat and funky is the best way to describe this groove, and the Headhunters would have been proud. The show ended with a pair of lyricist John Barlow tunes, "It Is What It Is" and "Just Passing Through." "Walk This Way" closed out the show, and the combination of bluegrass and cheesy metal make this classic reborn. This really was a great show all around.
Seattle night two was the easiest day of the run for us, as we didn't have to travel and we stayed at our friend's place right around the corner from the Paramount. We stayed in all day watching Pirates of the Caribbean and eating veggie lasagna. It was nice to have a little recovery time, especially since the winter tour cold bug was biting down on our health.
I have to be honest: the first set this night didn't really do it for me. As the old expression goes, "Any cheese is gouda cheese," but in comparison to the standard they established the few nights before, this set never really took flight. "Lost" was nicely done, but nothing too exploratory. "Desert Dawn" didn't come close to the epic proportions seen in Eugene. I'm not going to harp on the negatives of one solitary set, with all of the positives that existed during this run. I do have to admit that the Bob Marley "Could you be Loved" was outstanding. This was a really unique interpretation. Other than that the set was average, and when the band sets the bar so high it is hard for every set to live up to its utmost potential.
But have no fear. The second set wound up being one of the most innovative and raging sets of this extended weekend. "Way Back Home" was really energetic, and the jamming was tight and hot. Michael Travis was all over this one, his flying appendages behind the kit and congas looking and sounding like there are two distinct musicians back there. "Black and White" is just a great song that has powerful lyrics, funky jamming, and even a little spiritual revival at the end. It really has it all, and so did this particular version. I really enjoyed "Rollover," but I enjoy every "Rollover." It just is a show-stopping tune that usually highlights the depth of String Cheese's collective interplay. Then the hauntingly familiar notes of the Johnny Cash classic "Ring of Fire" began to echo in this gorgeous hall, and Bill Nershi began to sing. Of course this version had its own cheesy twists and turns, but purists should rest easy, because it was unique yet respectful to the fullest. Bill Withers' "Grandma's Hands" was dusted off for the first time since they played it with Bruce Hornsby in Denver in 2001. The set closes with possibly my favorite String Cheese song of them all. "Rivertrance" needs to be experienced first hand to be fully comprehended. Just trying to dance in step with Kang's rocking Irish fiddling is challenge enough, but once Kyle starts bending the notes limbs are flying everywhere. This particular version has an extended jam that leads into the initial notes, and the song just seemed bigger and better than most versions. And yes in this case, bigger is better. Anyway the entire set is just remarkable, and basically everything I could hope for.
Michael Travis and Bill Nershi came out for the first encore. Elvis' "Wild Ride" is a slick instrumental that Billy picked on his guitar, while Travis is drummed on the body of Billy's guitar. After this quick ditty came the crowd favorite "Smile." I couldn't think of a more appropriate closer after a set that really rocked me to my foundation. However the best was yet to come.
I had debated heading up to the Vancouver show for a few weeks before the show, and I am so grateful that I took the solo mission to visit our northerly neighbors. Vancouver is an amazing city, and it really has everything. There is a great city life with plenty of cultural curiosities. There is natural beauty in both the snow-covered mountains that overlook the city and the ocean views, and the city is very politically forward in their thinking. They don't call this town Vansterdam for nothing. Anyway I met some really friendly and welcoming local folk who were more than happy to show this guy from the States all the hot spots. I checked into my hotel that was about one block from the venue and prepared for the nights festivities. Since this night was the tour closer, we all knew that we were in for something special.
The Commodore Ballroom is a really sweet venue. It was decorated with Christmas trees and decorations around the outside of the dance floor. There were sparkling three-dimensional stars hung from the ceiling, as well as the necessary disco ball that was well used by the end of the night. There were also tables that surrounded the perimeter of the venue with a nice dance floor in the middle. This venue was a perfect spot for an Incident.
The first set, and really the whole show, was spectacular. They opened the show with a "Born on the Wrong Planet" that sandwiched a small "Jungle Boogie" jam. The transition was a little awkward, but really who could complain. The transition back to "B.O.T.W.P." was smooth, and the crescendo was tight. Jean Luc Ponte's "Mouna Bowa" followed, which never fails to put a smile on our collective faces. Really every song during this show had highlights, and brought a great response from the audience. A really nice "Midnight Moonlight" followed, and the musical euphoria continued. Small bluegrass ditty "Long Journey Home" brought a rise from the crowd. However the meat of the set lies in the "Got What he Wanted" > "Little Hands" > "Shine" run of songs to close the set. "Got What He Wanted" is always a treat, especially since it is not played as often as in years past. "Little Hands" is always huge. Once Kang retrieves his fiddle, and the boys turn up the heat of the jam, our collective limbs become a blur. This was hot, slick, and just plain tight. Yet they were not done. "Shine" closed out a rocking set in a magnificent manner. What I particularly liked about this version is the extended jamming and improvisation that went into the distinctive sections of this composition. I felt in the last few years this huge tune had become somewhat stagnant. Not that it wasn't always a great song, but that there was little change between versions, almost as if it was composed improvisation. Yet this one had it all. They nailed the composed sections, jammed the spaces in between, and rocked our bodies to a sweaty frenzy.
The second set brought more fire and fun, and this night was far from over. "Round the Wheel" was great. The jam was tight, and the reprise back into the chorus never fails to bring smiles. "Who am I?" is a really interesting instrumental that just sets a great groove to dance to. The Talking Heads classic "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)" is probably the best cover that SCI plays. It is funky, Kyle's vocals are terrific, and lyrically David Byrne just knows how to write a brilliant song. Just thinking about it brings a smile to my face. They jammed this cover into the Cheese classic "Black Clouds," which is another show-stopping tune. As Keith Moseley said in years past, this song is the happiest break-up song ever, and it's probably true. They rocked it out and were about to leave the stage, but Keith reminded the rest of the band that there still was another song on the list. Just like that they break into the Dylan cover "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." It's another classic cover, and it seems SCI puts a lot of thought into the covers they play. This was especially appropriate because Billy gets to exclaim that "I'm going back to Colorado, I do believe I've had enough." After a tour through the cold and wet northwest in December, I could believe it.
Michael Travis came out before to ask us what we wanted to hear. Everyone was shouting different songs, and as for me I was hoping for a "Texas" encore. We can all dream can't we? Anyway the rest of the band joins Travis onstage and drops into the Keith Mosley led "Joyful Sound." Honestly this song doesn't really do it for me until the end jam, where anything can happen. The jam was sweet and soaring. It was a solid encore, and I would have left happy and more than satisfied, but they were not done with us just yet. There was this lingering energy floating in the air after the "Joyful Sound" the band was not leaving, and we were not done dancing. All of a sudden Bill Nershi busts into his familiar string of notes, and bam! Instant euphoria. "Texas" is about as big a closer as there is, and they really drove it home. It was a full-on "Texas," ripping, climbing, and exploding as the musical tension builds. I couldn't have been happier, and the boys couldn't have ended this stellar run in a better way.
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