The String Cheese Incident :: 11.26.04 :: Tweeter Center at the Waterfront :: Camden, NJ
While some slept off the post-Turkey Day tryptophan lethargy and others woke at the crack of dawn for their annual Black Friday shopping madness, others (myself included) awoke with trip-to-Camden anticipation and visions of Shakedown Street bargain hunting. Nothing like a little Cheese to dance away those excess calories with the power of groove and a few thousand extended family members.
Quite honestly, whether you're a fan or not, The String Cheese Incident sheds abundant light and wisdom on this wonderful little music community of ours. So it felt only natural to spend the holiday weekend with the barefoot Colorado mountain boys in a celebration of giving thanks. Whether through food drives with the Conscious Alliance, (feeding Native Americans and on this weekend, the less fortunate of South Jersey) or affiliations with Headcount and Rock The Earth (a non-profit environmental task force), SCI attempts to promote social awareness and healing through its music and presence.
Moseley, Nershi, Hann :: 11.26 :: Camden
The String Cheese Incident's rise to jamband glory has been meteoric. Behind the scenes though, the band has created a long-term vision of steady, controlled growth while simultaneously building and solidifying a strong core business organization. So it comes as no coincidence, poised for a major East Coast power move in this post-Phish era, that SCI chose Camden for their special holiday shows. In light of the winter weather moving in, the back and sides of the Tweeter Center, (normally an open–air pavilion) were sealed off from the lawn to create a temperature-controlled amphitheatre.
SCI/Fidelity artist DJ Harry got the Friday evening festivities underway warming up the audience members who trickled in slowly. Harry's one-of-a-kind house/trance/downtempo vibe on the wheels of steel put everyone inside in that familiar goofy-grin, happy-feet dancin' mood. DJ Harry's chilled psychedelic electronica could be heard in the hallways and corridors and was being pumped into the lobby and even the rest rooms. The blonde-dreadlocked turntablist served up a perfect, penetrating welcome and made sure the tone was properly set for the remainder of the evening.
The mellow vibe was totally shattered when Jersey hometown hero Robert Randolph took the stage with his Family Band. A pedal steel guitar virtuoso, Randolph is as captivating and contagious a performer as anyone in the entertainment business. In fact, Randolph and the Family Band have been nominated for two Grammy awards and have opened for the Dave Matthews Band and even had the coveted opening spot for guitar legend Eric Clapton. Randolph's custom made 13 string pedal steel has landed him on Rolling Stone's list of top 100 guitarists of all time – all this by his mid-20's. Robert and his band play a unique blend of music, marrying gospel, rock, soul and funk, all of which were on display in Camden.
Robert Randolph :: 11.26 :: Camden
Randolph was joined on stage by his cousin, drummer Marcus Randolph who held a tight groove all evening long on the skins. Danyel Morgan rounded out the slammin' rhythm section with his slap/strum bass technique. Jason Crosby completed the Family Band on organ, piano and occasionally picked up the violin. Midway through their set, the crowd had filled the venue almost completely. While most opening acts usually get minimum attention and even occasional audience "boos," Randolph's enthusiasm and abilities drew the "oohhhs," "ahhs" and "wows" normally associated with a mind-blowing fireworks display. And quite truly, Randolph's finger work is as quick as a dangerously short fuse and his demeanor explosive as he simultaneously stands and kicks over his chair in an entranced playing frenzy. With his cornrows exposed he delivers the Gospel through his guitar, everything left being launched for the finale of sonic explosion after sonic explosion, the ghosts of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn summoned and channeled. Lord have mercy! Make no mistake, Robert Randolph and the Family Band is not an easy act to follow. But if any band is up for the challenge, it is The String Cheese Incident.
The Colorado boys took the stage and much to my chagrin, percussionist Jason Hann emerged with the band. On Hulaween, drummer Michael Travis certainly made it sound as if Hann would be the official sixth member of the band. Hann made his percussion debut with SCI in 1999 and resurfaced with the Cheese again this past July in L.A. and then two nights later in Vegas. The phenomenal percussionist then joined the band for a wonderful three day run in August at West Virginia's Jerry Garcia Birthday Bash. Since then, Hann has played the last fifteen shows with the Cheese including the entire fall 2004 tour. When this Black Friday show was finished it was Hann who surprisingly stuck out in my head as the superstar of the gig. Hann added an oxymoronic simple yet complex texture to the overall flow and vibe of the show. He has become so familiar with the SCI songs and structures that he blends chameleon-like into the pleasant aural assault, and at least in Camden, boosted a somewhat otherwise lackluster effort that was plagued by sound issues.
Nershi & Hann :: 11.26 :: Camden
My expectation level for this show was high – a bar the Cheese set themselves in the nine SCI shows I have seen this year. But on this night in Camden, after nearly a month layoff since the end of fall tour, the Boys came out of the box a bit flat. Surely SCI was using these shows as a tune up since they were returning to Colorado immediately after to begin recording a new album for 2005. But the bigger question running through my mind was: Why, when SCI has a big gig with the most on the line, do they seem to play at best mediocre shows? This was without a doubt the feeling I got when the Cheese played Central Park in summer of 2001 and also when SCI had center stage at Bonnaroo in 2002. Ultimately, this was also the feeling I would end up with again in Camden.
"Round the Wheel" kicked off the festivities, an ideal opener thematically, just one night after Thanksgiving, reminding us all of the circular and cyclical nature of life. The snow flurries outside and near full moon also made the tune an appropriate choice. It took a few minutes for this song to take off and didn't find the sweet spot until the jam after the final verse. It was Kyle Hollingsworth's trance-like keyboard wizardry over Hann's percussion that really sent the jam into hyperspace as the band found its first uplifting groove of the evening before settling back into the final movement of "Wheel."
Kyle Hollingsworth :: 11.26 :: Camden
New Billy Nershi tune "One Step Closer" followed. The acoustic guitarist's bluegrass love ballad follows closely along with his distinctive writing style and tradition. This version wasn't quite as sharp as others I have heard, but the percussion duel between Travis and Hann can make any cheesy (pun intended) lyrics well worth the wait. The drumming jam switched pace mid-stream and dropped directly into what initially sounded like "Jellyfish." What a great early treat I thought, but it turned out that the song was a new Hollingsworth tune "What I Know." The song, which actually debuted during fall tour, has a wonderful Latin feel to it, and like many Hollingsworth tunes, explores consciousness. Keith Moseley's bass line dropped into heavy funk mode matching Hollingsworth's synthesizer tones before reaching the repeating chorus: "Love slowly washes away... and you're left in the sun." However, about six minutes into the song, the venue's PA totally cut out and a dreadful dead silence filled the pavilion for nearly two minutes. Though not the band's fault, and even though the band kept playing so they were right on point when the sound did return, this blunder was something that was hard to overlook.
The flow of the show seemed to dissipate after the loss of sound. An ill placed and clumsy "Suntan" gave way to "45th of November." Though Hollingsworth co-wrote this song with legendary Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, its dark mysteriousness and discontent vibe are inherently contradictory to SCI's overall positive outlook.
Michael Kang :: 11.26 :: Camden
"No matter when it comes, one thing is sure it comes to soon/Fame, death, love all find us never quite prepared, or in tune/Long long last its clear, we really can't get there, from here/It's the 45th of November, and its 26:10 on the clock..."
This song paints a disturbing image of an old man looking back at life with a bitter contempt for time. Our omniscient narrator is either ruminating about the lack of time in life to get ready for the important challenges, or he is complaining that there is too much time and no extra amount (of time) will assist in the challenges that stare us down. One thing has improved tremendously since the first time I heard this song though and that is the carefully orchestrated, pointed jam that soars as the final lyrics are delivered. The jam begins somewhat dark with Hollingsworth pounding the piano keys as Moseley matches the strokes with his bass licks. The sadness and melancholy of the song's lyrics are shaken as SCI take off on a musical exploration of time.
Speaking of Moseley, his classic show stopper "Black Clouds" practically brought the building down as the up-tempo bluegrass number took us up the valley and through the woodlands like a raging fire. Interestingly, "Black Clouds" is a somewhat dark song as well, even though the upbeat nature of the tune says otherwise. Moseley crooned about being at the cross roads of a relationship, wondering if his partner is the right one. The forest blocks the light of day and makes it difficult to determine if the path ahead is to be traveled together with a loved one or solo. As always, the middle jam section really got the audience involved. This was the first true highlight of the evening, and possibly the only highlight of the first set (besides Robert Randolph), as the bluegrass pickin' reached rapid new heights. This was the first Moseley song of the evening and up to this point, a Michael Kang tune had also been conspicuously missing.
Robert Randolph came out and joined the Cheese for the set closing "Outside Inside." As Nershi posed the question "Can you be with someone and still be free?" it seemed more like a current events question for Kang and Randolph as Kang struggled to be heard above the obnoxiously loud pedal steel. Randolph's excessive soloing stepped on more than a few toes and he was so overly loud in the mix that no SCI member had a chance of assert his musical mastery. Strangely enough this is the complete opposite of what happened a few years prior in Central Park, when Randolph came out to join SCI and was so low in the mix, his musical offerings were inaudible.
Robert Randolph :: 11.26 :: Camden
A set break was just what the doctor ordered and as soon as the music stopped, the low buzz running stream-like through my ears was a definite signal that it was time to move out of the deafening and jam-packed pit. After meeting up with old friends in the lobby and downing a ten dollar beer, my crew and I settled into the 200 level seating. We took up shop in the back left corner of the venue where the folding chairs had been almost completely removed and there was more than abundant space for all the spinners, tweakers and those who just like to straight up boogie. The corners in the upper level were relatively empty as most of the people in the 200's congregated towards the middle sections. As soon as the music started, I quickly realized why this was. The back corners of the venue were pretty much on a one second delay and victimized by a Grand Canyon-like echo. All in all, the Tweeter's sound system and sound quality was atrocious. The huge, thick, black curtains on the sides and back of the amphitheatre also seemed to suck up the good tones like a vacuum, leaving a hollow, echoing, delayed experience for the ears.
Despite this, I again chose to submerge myself in the moment and cherish the dancing room and the spectacular second set that had begun to take form. The Cheese came out rockin' with a spectacular "Dirk," Hollingsworth's playing and voice as impassioned as ever. This was a particularly sharp opener and the percussion duo of Travis and Hann added tremendous depth. The ensuing jam was a sure sign that SCI was musically "searching for answers" in set two. Hollingsworth's heavy synth exploration mutated into a techno/psychedelic trance experiment, with siren-like whirls and cries eventually giving way to the chorus one final time.
Michael Kang :: 11.26 :: Camden
As the last notes were hit, Kang softly yet distinctively began fingering the intro of "Under African Skies." The Paul Simon gem would finally highlight Kang's wonderful, enchanting vocal prowess. This choice of song also seemed particularly appropriate considering the holiday season now upon us. SCI's cover song repertoire is as strong as any band playing today. Like Hollingsworth's version of the Talking Heads "Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place)," Kang's "Under African Skies" has come to take on its own special meaning in SCI lore, being remarkably definitive of the Cheese message, style and substance:
"This is the story of how we begin to remember/This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein/After the dream of falling and calling your name out/These are the roots of rhythm/And the roots of rhythm remain"
At this point we were all given the angelic wings to navigate this musical magic and to soar high through the Kang and Hollingsworth harmony. The symbolic Phoenix had arisen from the ashes of what was a mediocre first set. Mr. Hollingsworth further guided us with a spin on his melodica before we collectively sat perched atop the venue, taking in everything at once – our spirits above our whirling and twirling bodies looking down at ourselves and the SCI boys. Nershi's acoustic solo challenged Kang's gentle fiddle work as the two exchanged pleasantries, pace picking up, until Jason Hann stole the spotlight with a hand drum solo that morphed magnificently into "Desert Dawn."
Bill Nershi :: 11.26 :: Camden
Another positive and beautiful Kang song, "Desert Dawn" also explores the mystical and divine. The crowd now grooved in unison and the alchemic transformation was building and grew progressively. The kids yelled and threw their arms in the air with the lines: "Reach into the sky and touch the stars with your own hands." Kang stepped up to the forefront as he laid down a blistering solo on his electric mandolin.
"Desert Dawn" would end and there would be no segue into the next selection, the instrumental "Sand Dollar." I thought this was a particularly strange choice and I had to question the placement. SCI had finally built a full head of steam and the Cheese train was chuggin' along those tracks, heading to that very special place of musical transcendence, until this song came up. Not that there is anything wrong with "Sand Dollar" which in and of itself is a fine track. But at this crucial moment it wasn't the song that was going to launch the audience into the "other realm."
Moseley would get another chance to sing as "Dollar" snaked back into "Sirens." "Sirens" proved to be a great emotional ride and a beautiful contradiction. The vocal part dark and somewhat haunting, while the chorus had a cheery reggae vibe to it. Nershi also broke out his lap steel to invoke the siren-like roar of the speeding ambulance in the song.
The String Cheese Incident :: 11.26 :: Camden
Nershi and Hollingsworth took the lead on the "Sirens" jam which slithered into party favorite "Miss Browns Teahouse." The Boys did a masterful yet subtle job of masking the song as the crowd roar of recognition did not go up until the lyrics began. For those of you who don't know, Miss Browns Teahouse is a real destination in Jamaica where one can legally buy mushroom tea. Clearly on this night the tune was an ode to mushrooms and madness and a somewhat slower version matched the overall vibe of the night.
The Cheese would finish off the set with the familiar staple "It Is What It Is." John Perry Barlow, Bob Weir's masterful lyricist for tunes like "Estimated Prophet," "Black Throated Wind" and "The Music Never Stopped," penned this tune along with Michael Kang. "It Is What It Is" appears to have become an SCI go-to song over the last year. As always, the tune wound its way through the nearly ten minute (yet predictable) epic jam before stopping and then restarting to finish in grand, dramatic fashion.
DJ Harry would then join SCI for the first song of the encore, a stirring and spacey rendition of "On The Road." Harry spun Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech intricately into the mix as the band fired up the audience one last time before the crowd would be sent "out on the road" and home. One final and a tad bizarre treat awaited as Nershi left the stage during the final moments of "Road." SCI jammed into a heavy rock type beat before barefoot Billy Nershi returned to his rug minus guitar, but clutching a microphone. Billy, looking like Captain Caveman, busted out into the Red Hot Chili Peppers "Give it Away," a song they did at last year's Bonnaroo. It certainly was a head nodding, rip roaring good time and an appropriately good way to end a show that at times lacked flow and lacked the characteristically polished chops of The String Cheese Incident.
All Words & Images by: John Smrtic
JamBase | New York
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