String Cheese Incident | 12.08.03 | Fox Theatre | Redwood City, CA
The Fox Theatre is the kind of place they used to call a palace: elaborate wood carvings covering up the walls, paintings of mermaids rising from the deep, thick carpets, a grand staircase by the entrance. What sets it apart from similar theater spaces like the Paramount in Oakland or the legendary Warfield in SF is that it's half the size of those halls. The String Cheese Incident ducked in on a blustery December 8th, a Monday night of all things, to pick, grin, and celebrate ten years of playing in the band.
The streets of suburban Redwood City are usually a gray, quiet stretch of local shops, government buildings, and softly humming traffic. This night fairy princesses, dreadlocks in jester caps, earthbound angels and just plain ol' hippies filtered, smiling, up Broadway. The whole pack bristled with puppy energy, bouncing and yelping with undisguised delight. The party begins in the approach to an SCI show, the energy being harnessed inside the walls of the venue spilling out, grabbing those in proximity. There's never any doubt which band is playing even if one hasn't seen the marquee. String Cheese enthusiasts are a unique breed, out for good times and ready to let a lot slide in order to achieve that end.
Inside, the band had set up an electric tie-dye set with risers for the rhythm section and Kyle Hollingsworth and Michael Kang on opposite sides of the stage from where they had performed the last time I'd seen them more than a year earlier. I like to let a little time go by for things to change, mutate a bit, between visits with this act. It's each evolutionary step that interests me. How they get there is somewhat less compelling. This separates me from their faithful, a secret society as much as the ones held by Phish and Widespread Panic, where each show is a kind of moveable clubhouse and you really only get fully in if you know the handshakes, the history, and what each band member had for breakfast. This kind of insularity is natural, the result of building one's social life around a focal point. In my time I've done the same with the Grateful Dead in the '80s and the Black Crowes in the '90s. There's a delicious comfort in belonging to a gang, especially one where the music plays loud and long and strangers hug you just because you're singing along with every line. This dynamic only occurs with bands who have a groove of their own, a flare that shows itself brightly within a few seconds of the first song. String Cheese most assuredly is their own animal and their friends, or perhaps more rightly, their family, rallies behind them in a way not many groups can match.
Sitting in the balcony, I catch glimpses of parts of people one doesn't usually see in public. A nipple here, an ass crack there, a flash of sun bronzed thigh. That hemp leisurewear doesn't leave a lot to the imagination. These fans let it all hang out, quite literally. What's funny is how oddly asexual it all is. It is kids at play, running in sprinklers, not a sloppy striptease or casual come-on.
Lights fall and the stage lights up with a gentle, rolling mood that doesn't lift all night. We're told early on that the band is celebrating "10 years of madness" out on the road this December. This is a self-described "old school" show so there's a heaping helping of bluegrass. There's also healthy servings of calypso, blues, jazz, psychedelic rock, ambient noodling, and native folk forms from around the globe. SCI are a strange musical goulash. The second set includes a stirring take on the Doors' "Riders on the Storm" and then a few songs later up jumps Miles Davis' "All Blues." I have the deepest respect for any band that can play two sets a night over and over again. String Cheese are marathon men in this department. But unlike some of their peers, there is a herky-jerky quality to the ride. Bluegrass isn't always the easiest genre to mingle with anything else yet they do every single set.
If there's one common element to SCI's oeuvre it's a reliance on archetypal riffs. They are nothing if not a populist band. They are not willfully obscure nor do their melodies often challenge expectations. They reach into the cosmos and pull out chords that connect with a wide variety of people. What they write has the kind of appeal that radio should grab a hold of. That it hasn't is a bit of a mystery.
As usual, I found the jams, the exploration on the edges of their songs proper, to be the most engaging part of the evening. When they step off the path I'm eager to grab a machete and follow them. Highlight of show for me came towards the end of the first set as they worked a sinuous ramble towards closer "¡BAM!." Beginning with a spirited "Wake Up" (a standout from their latest, best yet studio release Untying The Not, an exotic and wonderfully trippy slab of goodness) the boys dished up everything good about live music. Kyle reminded us again that he is one of the tastiest keyboard players currently walking the boards, finding odd pockets to fill with jagged, prickly color. Bill Nershi surprised me with his twitchy electric guitar, which in turn sparked Kang into some nasty, dissonance-flecked jamming. All stirred up, it made the room so funky you could smell it.
Many times people have compared String Cheese to the Grateful Dead. A fair number of the Dead's supporters from the past have gotten behind this band and their mission to entertain and delight. Still, sitting in the Fox, I was struck by how far apart these two bands truly are. Beyond the surface details of changing set lists nightly, dope smoking, and playing really long shows, I just don't see it or hear it. A more apt comparison it seems is Margaritaville sea salt Jimmy Buffet and his flock of Parrotheads. What Buffet and String Cheese do is create an atmosphere of play. Folks get to dress up and dance in the streets for a night. Every song is greeted like the Second Coming of Jesus himself. This makes for a rather uncritical environment where the band needs only push themselves so far. If everything you do is hailed as a triumph, if every note is seen as gold raining down from Olympus, then there's not a lot of pressure to stretch yourself or your audience. String Cheese is always good but they are not always great. I've yet to attend a show that wasn't well played, beautifully appointed and full of smiling, enormously friendly faces. SCI fans may be the nicest folks on the jam circuit and surely they are the most active in co-creating their experiences. But, I've not always been transported, taken out of myself and thrown into a new realm. In short, had the top of my head blown clean off. It's happened with the Cheese. I still hold fond memories of my first incident in Santa Cruz in March of 2001. In many respects, I'm chasing that same high each time I set foot in a concert space with these guys. That I haven't found it again says something.
They are a reliable good time. And that's not such a bad thing. Given the stinkers I attended with Jerry Garcia and his crew there's something to be said for knowing the band won't blow when you've put thought and money and time into seeing them. Their performance at the Fox was no exception. They made us smile but in an easy way. Like Buffet in the late '70s, who's early work is a good deal more earthy and adventurous than the stuff that made him famous, String Cheese is at a crossroads where they can choose to take it easy or veer off in directions that might not carry everyone along. At the ten-year mark, they are comfortable, a pair of slippers with bells on the toes that one can slip on every time they come to town. As it stands, their fans will likely grow old with them and cheer for the same tunes at every concert. But there's an itch, some grains of sand in their collective ointment, that tells me the band members may have more to express than this. The choice of whether that sand will gestate into a pearl is all their own. I, for one, am curious to hear how this all turns out in the years ahead.
Words by: Dennis Cook
Images from: SciOnTheRoad.com
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