Let’s Dance Until the Music’s Over:The String Cheese Incident Says Goodbye to Their Fans and the Road…For Now
"Thanks for coming and checking out the band."
This was the understated goodbye that Billy Nershi offered at several of the regional ‘farewell’ shows this summer. With a voice almost steady, but threatening to crack from the strain of underlying emotion, this was how Billy chose to say ‘thank you’ to the fans. Thank you for the last 14 years, thank you for loving our music, thank you for the community you’ve built, thank you for the support thanks for checking out the band. The downplayed sentiment was typical of how the String Cheese Incident chose to wrap up this 14 year chapter in their careers, and in our lives. Without too much fanfare, or drama, but with class, with love and with what they’ve always done best; some solid, rocking shows.
This summer, SCI conducted a tour unlike any other in the band’s history. Dedicated to performing weekend runs in several different regions of the country, it wasn’t the kind of tour that fans could just "get in the car and roam" on. On a tour that consisted of a weekend in New York City, the following weekend in Berkeley, the next in Oregon, then Missouri and finally in Colorado, with festival sets in Tennessee and Minnesota squeezed in for good measure, keeping up with the barefoot boys wasn’t easy. But those who caught one show or all eighteen were treated to some amazing music, put out by a band at the top of their game, humble and grateful to the fans and community that’s been built around them, and in touch with their past and present, if still unsure of their future. Every weekend felt like a grand celebration and an emotional farewell rolled up together as SCI said thank you to fans in different regions of the US and fans bid farewell to the music and scene that has meant so much to them for years now.
In New York City, String Cheese got to fulfill a dream they’d had for years, to play the Beacon Theatre. With three out of the four nights sold out, their first time at this historic theater was a huge success. Spirits were high for these shows, the intensity fueled by the high energy of the NYC crowd. Unfortunately, Bill Nershi’s signature Martin guitar had been damaged in Costa Rica recently, leaving a glaring lack of acoustic guitar throughout the weekend. The result was a very different SCI sound, with far more electric guitar than usual, but overall this seemed to work out for some heavy rocking big city concerts.
While many would be tempted to turn a farewell tour into a series of "greatest hits" performances, SCI seemed set on playing a solid run just like any other, working out the newer songs, mixing in older favorites and even introducing a few new covers. Pink Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb" and The Talking Heads’ "What A Day That Was" were two tunes that debuted in the Big Apple and were worked into the summer rotation afterward. With the Beacon only a few blocks from The Dakota and Strawberry Fields, it was quite fitting that SCI also paid tribute to Lennon and the Beatles with a once-only version of "Strawberry Fields Forever." The final night of the run was clearly the best show, with an acoustic mini-set opener and intensely jammed versions of "It Is What It Is," "Pretty Polly," "Rivertrance," "Howard" and "Land’s End." Even at these first of the farewell shows, emotions ran high as band and fans alike realized this would be the Cheese’s last stand on the east coast for the foreseeable future.
The following weekend found the String Cheese Incident at one of their true homes away from home, the San Francisco Bay area. Back at the beginning of SCI’s ride, the west coast in general, and the bay area specifically, quickly became their strongest market outside their home state of Colorado. SCI was selling out multiple night runs at the Fillmore in 1999, and then the Warfield in 2000, long before they could achieve similar goals in any place other than Boulder or Denver. Years of avoiding California in favor of building stronger sales in the east and south has taken its toll, however. While most shows on this tour sold out very quickly, neither night at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley managed to sell out, even with such high profile opening acts as The Disco Biscuits, Sound Tribe Sector Nine, Hot Buttered Rum and Railroad Earth. Still, a large number of Bay Area fans who have moved on from their love of Cheese in recent years came out to the Greek, to recapture that magic one last time, and weren’t disappointed.
With the diverse opening acts, most people expected the two shows at the Greek to be as different as night and day. People expected to hear the heavy electronic direction, that SCI has moved toward recently, showcased heavily on the first night, with Bisco and STS9 lending to the overall techno-jam vibe. But to this reviewer’s ears, both shows in Berkeley were throwbacks to the Cheese of old. Nershi’s guitar had been repaired and he was eager to put it to use, bringing the classic sound back to the stage that had been missing the weekend before. There was, of course, some big bass-heavy electronic jamming with the Biscuits’ Aron Magner and Jon Gutwillig on "Desert Dawn," but aside from that the Berkeley crowd was treated to some old school Cheese sounds.
A Sunday afternoon show at the Greek is a special thing. Many stories were being told among the crowd of special memories from Grateful Dead days, and we found the torch being passed once again when Nershi sat in and professed his admiration for both opening acts. Day two turned out to be the bluegrass throwdown that folks predicted, with the Hot Buttered Rum and Railroad Earth boys lending a hand to such standards as "I’ll Fly Away," "Walls of Time" and "Whiskey Before Breakfast," as well as surprises like "Sweet Melinda." In between the bluegrass breakdowns, the band showed their continuing ability to mix things up, with more of the rock and roll tunes that people would have expected the previous day, such as "Piece of Mine" and "Bumpin’ Reel." When the show ended with "Smile," just after sunset on Sunday, those who wouldn’t make it to Horning’s Hideout the next weekend felt satisfied with their last Incident, a beautiful sunny afternoon in the bay.
Anyone that has been to Horning’s Hideout, just outside Portland, Oregon, knows what kind of magic can transpire there. It is, simply, the premiere venue for String Cheese. Private land, breathtaking forest, a picturesque lake for the backdrop to the stage, and lots of space to roam around and set up or admire artistic displays of all kinds. Bob Horning has a sweet piece of land up there in Oregon, and when SCI and their friends descend on it, it becomes a hippie faerie paradise unlike anywhere in the world. This sixth visit to Horning’s was no different, but more special in fact, with the knowledge that the venue was very nearly unavailable for this summer’s festivities.
Friday night may have been the best, most solid Incident of the weekend, with a highly jammed out second set that featured new favorite "Love Is Like A Train," a best-ever version of "Boo Boo’s Pik-A-Nik," and an expansive "Rivertrance> Pack It Up> Rivertrance." Saturday night felt more like the traditional Sunday show, starting off with an incredibly relaxed first set, full of special treats. Nershi kicked off the evening solo before adding Keith and Kang, to form the original trio that started all this craziness. If you closed your eyes you could imagine yourself in the chatty bar room of the Floradora in Telluride, with three young bluegrass musicians just playing for their beer. Next up was the full band, but with some interesting instrument switches. Playing the song "Until the Music’s Over" for the first time live, the band went to the instrumentation that they had used for the song in the studio while recording the album "One Step Closer", with Travis on bass and Moseley on acoustic guitar. Following that, Nershi moved over to bass and Moseley took the electric guitar mantle for a first time outing of Dylan’s "When I Paint My Masterpiece". A solo Hollingsworth performance capped off this very special segment of the show.
Overall, the first two sets had an incredibly relaxed, mellow vibe, incongruous with the big third set Peak Experience production which everyone knew was coming. Somehow, Peak managed to outdo themselves once again, thanks in no small part to a budget clearly much larger than in years past. Firedancers spun burning poi and staffs around a flaming pyramid while a fire breathing dragon belched flames at the audience. Michael Travis and Jamie Janover played percussive instruments that sent jets of flame into the air. A fourth of July worthy fireworks display erupted on the amphitheater floor, while robed figures danced, unbelievably, in the heart of the madness. The second half of the production showed off some amazing LED toys, with glowing hoops and poi creating glowing psychedelic visions while giant mushrooms frolicked around the field. Say what you will about Peak Experience Productions, but no one else creates such original psychedelic theatre, and SCI at Horning’s Hideout would not be the same without the Peak crew’s energy and vision.
In the past, the Sunday show at Horning’s has been a time for acoustic sets and special treats. But this year we had already gotten those on Saturday, so what was left to close out this year’s event? It could only be a big rock and roll show, helped out by good friends ALO and Scott Law. It seemed almost as if the band had accidentally gotten the planned setlists for Saturday and Sunday switched, but I didn’t hear anyone complain. A long forgotten "Hey Pocky Way," with ALO guests, made a fun and welcome return to the repertoire. Later, Scott Law added his electric guitar wizardry to the tunes "On the Road," "Black & White" and "Black Clouds," taking things to higher and higher peaks, Billy and Kang both dueling frenetically with the talented guitar slinger. More than one fan was lead to proclaim, "I love the Scott Law Incident!" Just as in Berkeley, the crowd was not content with the standard encore at this final show, and the band was happily dragged back onstage for a second encore. Teary hugs closed out the last west coast Incident as those lucky enough to say so exchanged emotional calls of "See you at Red Rocks!"
The next weekend SCI hosted their ‘Big Summer Classic’ festival at Camp Zoe, in Missouri. Like most other fans who had been on the west coast the two previous weeks, I was unable to attend. Those who did make it attested that despite grueling heat, buggy conditions and unfriendly neighboring authorities, SCI put on some of their best shows of the summer, teaching the hard core fans one final lesson on why you should never skip a show. They don’t call these kinds of shows ‘sleepers’ for nothing, and those who weren’t caught sleeping were rewarded with rare favorites not played at any other show on the tour. Songs like "Wake Up," "Johnny Cash," "Climb," "Shantytown," "Cottonmouth," "The Road Home" and "Pirates" made those of us sitting at home regret our decision. "Born on the Wrong Planet" and "San Jose," two huge staples of the SCI repertoire were only played twice this summer, both times at the Midwest shows, Camp Zoe and 10,000 Lakes Fest. Those who trekked off the common path were happy to have done so this summer, and those who didn’t, hoped for their favorite songs to pop up one last time in Colorado.
Unfortunately, many of them wouldn’t. The one complaint heard throughout this tour was that the setlists became very repetitive. With such a huge catalogue built up over the last fourteen years, I think that most fans believed they would get to hear a much greater variety of songs played. It’s true that each run of shows had one or two breakout songs, but generally speaking, the band relied very heavily on a small core rotation of material. With limited practice time, the band chose to concentrate on songs they didn’t need to re-familiarize themselves with, in order to put forward solid, professional shows in each city with the least amount of flubs. While this made for great experiences for people who saw their "final Incidents" in one particular city, those who saw most, or all of the final shows were frustrated by the trend.
When all the Friends of Cheese gathered in Colorado, we all knew we were in for an intense weekend. Emotions had been building all summer long like black clouds on the horizon, and while no one knew quite what to expect, we knew that the final four shows at Red Rocks would be powerful. Red Rocks is one of the most amazing concert venues in the world, full of potent energy and natural wonder, and I’m sure there is no place else that SCI would rather have wrapped up this long chapter in their lives.
Each Red Rocks Incident was perfect in its own way. They each had moments of sadness, but were all celebrations of life, and love, and joy. On the first night there was a sublime moment when Keith Moseley started playing "Emma’s Dream," a beautiful song that hasn’t been played often enough. Moments later his daughter Emma came out on stage and danced next to her father, a smile of pure bliss gracing her face, a look of pure love looking up at her papa. Watching her dance in the spotlight it came to me that some of her movements were imitations of some of the spastic dance moves you’ll see in the front row of an Incident. Well, of course. How many times has she watched the crowd from backstage? And why shouldn’t she learn how to dance that way? It’s just another example of how this trip has all been a big circle, like a giant hula hoop. After letting Emma have the spotlight for a good amount of time, her younger sister Taylor was allowed to come out onstage and dance too. Later the same night, Billy’s daughter Lauren stepped out and showed off her hooping skills at the edge of the stage. These young girls were just as important to what was being created on that stage as the musicians on it, and just as important as all of us dancing and laughing and crying in the crowd. Because that’s the amazing thing about SCI. It’s the family that’s important, and thank the stars above that we have such a large family.
The celebration continued the next day with another huge party, complete with horn section. Kang fiddled furiously during "Cedar Laurels" and "The Remington Ride" and the horns added funk to classic covers "Howling at the Moon" and "I Wish." The encore found Travis out from behind the drums in a Michael Jackson costume, utilizing his falsetto for a Cheesy rendition of "Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough." This brought to mind another aspect of SCI that had always been important: silliness. This is not a band that has ever taken itself too seriously, and to do so in this final hour would have been completely out of character. Not to worry though, Travis did away with any ‘Farewell Tour’ pretentiousness with every screech and pelvic thrust.
To me, the third night was the best show of the run, and probably the summer. The audience at large had chosen a black color theme for this night, and it seemed very appropriate in the moment. It seemed to make sense to get any mourning that needed to be done out of the way before the final show, and mourn we did. Every song felt like it could be the last, and all around me through my own blurred vision I saw tears flowing freely. "Little Hands> Dudley’s Kitchen," "Close Your Eyes> Bam> Close Your Eyes" such classic Cheese. Would it be the last time we’d hear these songs played? The first set ended with an epic "I Know You Rider," complete with one of those transcendental moments that could never be planned. Of course, right on cue, the light sprinkles broke free of the clouds and turned into full on rain, perfectly timed with Mike Kang belting out how he would shine his light through the cool Colorado rain. I doubt anyone who was there can remember that moment without feeling goosebumps. The second set was a perfectly constructed "Desert Dawn" sandwich, filled with inspired jamming and flawless segues. "Thanks for coming out," Nershi said, during "Na Melody." No Billy, thank you.
Then, unbelievably, it was time. The last show. The big farewell. Somehow the summer had slipped away so quickly and we were faced with the prospect of having only one more night with our favorite band, our favorite friends, our very closest family. Somehow for me the last ten years had slipped by so quickly and was all culminating in this one night. How do you say goodbye to the best times of your life? Thankfully, with SCI, there’s only one way. With joy and with love. So tonight the crowd wore white, pure white, to shine as much pure light and love at the barefoot boys as we possibly could. We let go of our fears and our nostalgia and welcomed change with open arms and open hearts. We danced till the music was over. We danced like there was no tomorrow.
It wasn’t the best show, but it was still perfect, if that makes any sense at all. It had moments of greatness, but it couldn’t top the build-up of the previous nights. Honestly, who could expect those guys to perform at all under that kind of emotional intensity? I’m surprised they managed to hold it together for so long under that kind of strain. But they gave us all they had left, and we took it, and we cherished every second of it. They paid tribute to their roots with an acoustic set, playing three Peter Rowan songs in a row. They played some rare tunes like "Indian Creek" and "Bigger Isn’t Better", and the latter was the best version I’ve heard in years. Old friend Keller Williams made his appearance to everyone’s delight, and really, how could he not have? I’m sure he wanted to be there for this milestone just as much as any of the rest of us. The "Shine" closer was incredible, and you could tell no one on stage wanted it to end. The triple encore was a perfect goodbye, Pink Floyd’s "Fearless", the traditional "Whiskey Before Breakfast" and the original "Good Times Around the Bend." Such a sweet and fitting farewell. But we weren’t going to be satisfied with a sweet and fitting farewell. We needed our faces rocked off one last time. So all 9,800 people in Red Rocks made as much noise as they could, to show the String Cheese Incident how much we loved them one last time. They came back onstage with tears in their eyes and did what they do best. They played their hearts out. With one single mind and 12 arms they jammed as good a version of "Texas" as I’ve ever heard. When the lights came on and we all embraced and held each other, we cried, but it felt good. It felt healthy. We had said goodbye to this chapter of our lives with our heads held high and our hearts wide open, and we were ready for the next path that life would put before us.
The true legacy of the String Cheese Incident is the intimate and symbiotic relationship the band members shared with their fans.. In the wake of the Grateful Dead, several bands rose to a certain level of success. Those who didn’t find what they were looking for in the southern rock of Widespread Panic, or the dark cerebral explorations of Phish eventually gravitated to SCI. The shared vision that arose around SCI concerts has been a natural evolution from the Grateful Dead scene. The community values are strong and people who have fallen in love with the music of SCI have found a place where art, freedom, creative expression, kindness, spirituality, and love are encouraged and valued above all else. I have literally found myself through Cheese. I have learned what it means to love with an open heart. I have learned how to truly be myself and love who I am. I have learned how good it feels to give of yourself to others unconditionally. I have learned how to dance through life, enjoying every bit of it and doing my best to shine some of that light on the darkness we can encounter in the world.
When the announcement was made that Bill Nershi would be leaving SCI and that there were no plans for the band beyond this summer, I felt a lot of hurt and confusion. How could he walk away from something so good, and so powerful, that meant so much to so many? I constantly questioned the decision. It seemed to me that if these particular men, who were at the helm of something that has always had so much potential, if they couldn’t make their own personal relationships work, what hope did the rest of us have? It seems to me that SCI has always been about bringing together very different musical ideas, and they’ve always been so good at pulling together all these different directions and styles. That’s what set them apart from other bands in the first place. How could simply having more directions to pull from in recent years make things go sour?
I’ve come to realize that I’ll never understand how hard that push and pull must have always been for these guys, how draining it must be. It makes me sad that the constant compromise got to be too much, but I hope in my heart that everyone just needed a break, without the pressure of the next tour always looming over their heads. I don’t know if it can ever be the same as it was after a split like this, but I hope that it can. I think about what happened to Phish after their hiatus, and they never really seemed to hit their stride again. Then again, I think about the Grateful Dead who called it quits in 1974, only to return in 1976 with a new fire, and continued to play for another 20 years. There are rumors that this split is only meant to be temporary in the first place and I don’t know the truth, other than that this summer definitely felt like an ending of some sort. Whether the end of a chapter or of the book we’ll have to wait and see, but the love and positive energy that I felt at Red Rocks made me less worried about whatever the future may hold, and much more excited to find out what’s in store.
I can’t thank the String Cheese Incident enough for all they have given me. After 213 Incidents, I really can’t imagine the person I might have been without them and this family in my life. Thankfully I don’t have to, and I have a thousand memories of a thousand moments spent dancing with a thousand friends with a thousand smiles. I hope this isn’t the end, just a healthy break, and I take solace in the words Jack Mento spoke from stage on a perfect, breezy night in Colorado.
"I know WHEN we come back together again we are going to be a force to be reckoned with. It’s a great family reunion, and I look forward to the next one."