By Mike Finkelstein
On a gorgeous Friday evening, the Greek Theatre hosted a tribal gathering of sorts centered around the Colorado-based jam band String Cheese Incident. Although the show was scheduled to start at 7 pm it began a little more than half an hour later. This was fine as people sauntered in to nearly fill the place by the time the first notes of “Close Your Eyes” were played. In optimal jam band fashion, SCI played with no warm up act and the show was divided into two hour-plus sets. This format allowed the audience to focus entirely on their road buddies, SCI.
There really is no getting around a mention or two of the Grateful Dead in describing a show like this. If you ever saw the GD live you have seen much of the ritual before. The GD and their amazing group of devotees established the culture of convening at the band’s gigs festively attired (it all began with tie-dye and it’s still going strong), quite likely chemically enhanced, very familiar with the band’s recorded and live work, and ready to dance for the duration. Shows like these are always a people watcher’s delight. It seems that you’ll rarely encounter some of these characters anywhere but at the shows. There were folks in capes, space helmets, scanty cat suits, there were light sticks in people’s hair, and every imaginable juxtaposed combination of colorful thrift store hippie chic. As with a Dead show, contrasting the magnificent youthful scruff, there was also a significant contingent of very clean-cut professional looking guys present who clearly were getting back to their personal roots with all of this. Everyone came to dance.
Next to the music, the dancing appears to be the most important thing going on in these gatherings. It is a free form, full-body shaking-off of recent static and flux. People grooved from section to section and when the music peaked their hands came up and shook euphorically for a truly head to toe effect. And of course there was the omnipresent skunk-like fragrance of medicinal herb wafting throughout the throngs of grooving dancers.
Using the same basic instrumentation of the Grateful Dead — two guitars, two drummers, keys, and bass — the String Cheese Incident have also thrown in a couple of wrinkles. Their two percussionists are groovin’ trap drummer Michael Travis, and Jason Hann playing a platform full of hand percussion. Together, they build an invitingly busy, crisp polyrhythmic sound. Guitar-wise SCI have one permanent guitar, usually acoustic, played by Bill Nershi, matched with an exotic five-string, solid body electric, non-unison stringed mandolin played by Michael Kang. Kang’s axe is what no one else has. It mostly sounds like the middle and upper registers of an electric guitar, and in no small part like Jerry Garcia’s often sounded, but it draws your attention famously. Kang’s phrasing also evoked Garcia’s wispier moments, but he has found his own voice on this instrument. When playing electric guitar Nershi tends to sound impressively fluid and he shined as the band covered the Allman Brothers’ instrumental “Jessica.” Most of the while Nershi played acoustic guitar and at times (“Colorado Bluebird Sky”) he really let if fly with some fleet fingered flat picking runs. Kang also traded off on violin throughout the show.
SCI’s sound performed like a precision engine and this stemmed from the band’s percussion section. While the two guys kept things very busy they always stayed comfortably in each song’s natural pocket. Kyle Hollingsworth’s keyboards mixed tastily with the percussion so as to actually color the sound a bit. SCI transitioned from groove to groove with remarkable smoothness, never letting the seams show, and they shifted musical gears a lot. This allowed the tunes to swell like a giant balloon at times and the dancers responded to these dynamics euphorically. On Friday, Keith Mosely’s bass sound was super bottom heavy and had huge punch. but perhaps at the expense of some tone. Otherwise, SCI had one of the clearer sounds a six piece electric band may get at the Greek.
When a band can play together as well as SCI, it follows that their only real limitation would be the quality of the songs they write or play. In the first set SCI concentrated mostly on stretching out and getting all of their jamming synapses firing. The songs themselves weren’t as distinctive as things would get later. But they closed the first set with a keeper as they covered and owned Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.” This is a beautiful signature song by an iconic band and they took it for an impressive road test. To his considerable credit, Chang didn’t try to ape Robert Plant’s vocal and instead owned the song vocally by singing the words as if they were his. The icing on the cake came when Chang and Nershi nailed the signature harmony leads and then expanded on them. It was one of several peak moments of the evening.
What puts the String Cheese Incident at or near the top of the growing genre of jam bands is the fact that their songwriting is quite good at times. An example of this talent came with “Sometimes A River” a memorably catchy and soaring set of changes with a fine vocal from bassist Mosely that brought to mind Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen, of all people. The song also featured sweet, fat harmony leads, a sing-along chorus, nice use of the Hammond organ, and a super catchy rhythm. Like the Dead at their most danceable.
The second set featured a memorable trip through “Betray the Dark” with a West African friend of theirs on the kora. With, its large ornate gourd, long neck and numerous resonator strings, this instrument looked more like a UFO or a satellite. But played like a harp, it fit right in with the band’s sound. Later in the song four more percussionists and four dancers came out and the jam was in high gear. The grins on SCI’s faces were priceless. The kora was featured again as SCI gave us a stellar version of Peter Gabriel’s “Shakin the Tree.” The String Cheese Incident are a fine example of how a great band can step into a cover a song and actually transcend it, making it all their own.
After seeing a show like Friday’s at the Greek I couldn’t help but imagine what a great day it would be to hike in the Rocky Mountains by sunlight and then go catch the String Cheese Incident in an amphitheater by moonlight. I would imagine it happens often in Colorado.
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To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.