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Published: 2001/05/21
by Chris Gardner

String Cheese Incident- The Backyard Austin, TX 4/12-14

The bar has been raised. The tour opening, stuffed to the gills, three-day
run under the arching live oaks of Central Texas at the Backyard confirmed
nothing if not that. Perhaps no band is more affected by the void left
during this "hiatus" than the increasingly inspirational mountain boys of
String Cheese. This year's Austin run more than doubled the size of last
year's sodden affair, which speaks to the wandering masses of lamenters
picking up on a new tour as much as it does to word of mouth on last year's
packed run. Bill Nershi's pre-encore speech during the second night, with
its "Follow the Golden Rule" overtones, was both a nod to Good Friday and a
plea for kindness and consideration in their shifting musical family as it
assimilates the refugees and expands. So the Cheese is a group growing on
its own terms and a group having growth foisted upon it, and this Spring
Tour opener demonstrated clearly that they are ready for it, almost.

Thursday night was flat. While there were enough moments of beauty and
convergence to keep the wigglers wiggling, the jams that should fill the
landscape stretched out into endless, static deserts of sound. The band
knocked on the doors, looking for that breakthrough jam that would allow
them to really stretch their legs, but in the end it all felt like
speed-walking. There were definitely highlights, from the joyous "Best
Feeling" to the gigantic "Roll Over" sandwich that spanned the entire first
set and swung into the second to the "Outside/Inside" that came so close to
getting "there". Bill did a dead-on imitation of Paul Simon playing Bob's
"Tom Thumb's Blues", and the "Swingtown>Crosseyed and Painless" Jam that
ensued was fun, if under explored. Even Kang's fiddle, which was so
devastating the following night, failed to grip during the "Mouna Bowa"
encore. This is the in-between – the band grasping for that which is just
beyond its reach this night. As for the low, the band flexed it's Hallmark
muscles with "Let It Go" and "Joyful Sound", which are full of enough sap to
petrify an entire bee hive. Tack on unimaginative vocal arrangements and
the particularly grating, "NaNaNaNaNaNaNaNa" chorus of the latter, and you
have a pair of first rate clunkers. The message, _"Good vibes in
circulation"_ plays directly to the fluffy love that makes the Cheese
scene so distinct, but the lead hammer approach taints a "happy hippie" vibe
that has been much better stated innumerable times before. There is a subtlety
lacking that would lend these
sentiments any real weight. Nonetheless, the "On the Road" closer rawked,
blurring the lines between Phish and Cheese almost entirely and hinting at
the riotous jams of Friday night to come.

If Thursday is the flatlands, Friday is the mountain that juts forth
impossibly, rising beyond the reach of the human eye. The solid first set
featured the visceral "Sing a New Song" highlighting Bill's always welcome
slide work, and the "SKAT" that followed proved that the Cheese can lay down
beautiful, sap-free music as well as anyone in the business. From this
point on, Kang's fiddle dominated Friday night, despite the inhuman
rumblings of Michael Travis on the trap kit and percussion. It proved to be
a mere dash of what was to come. The "Little Hands>Jam>Smile" that closed
the first set burned with such spectral heat that Kang's fiddle nearly
caught fire. The jam built from the ground up – emerging from near
stillness, sprouting from the fingers of Nershi, and rising like a phoenix
through Kang's bow to a near manic pitch before disappearing into the
peaceful, Nershi-led build towards "Smile" which felt spontaneous but was so
complete that it may as well have been composed. "Smile" is the finest
Cheese – sweet, verging on sappy brilliance that the coaxes most jaded to
grin feverishly. All of this merely set the stage for the second set.
"Lonesome Fiddle Blues" was aggressive, propulsive, and energetic –
stretching far beyond its structure and exploring in ways Thursday only
dreamed of and stirring the anxious and willing crowd into ego-free bursts
of expression that were characteristic of the weekend. Their crowd is the
kindest of the scene, which is precisely why the band so actively campaigns
to maintain it. It takes the communal love of the Dead scene and blends it
with the fist-pumping energy of the Spread scene while carving out its own
distinct identity.
"Cedar" recalled the fiddle, stretching it atop Travis' driving rhythms
before slipping into the bluegrass segue that became "Sittin' on Top of the
World". "MLT" served as the steady reminder that Kyle has mad chops as
Billy swapped his Martin for a cowbell to emphasize the funky underbelly.
"Missin' Me" swerved into a full-blown rock and roll jam that rode the crest
in to the shore, pulling back in the face of the "Sand Dollar", whose 5-4
structure represents the five segments of said sea treasure. Neshi's light
on the lyrics "Shanty Town", which starts with the edgy reggae tinted "let's
go out in the woods tonight" verse closed the set in a fury with the quintet
raging through a rawkin' jam that left the crowd exhausted. In comparison,
the "Crosstown Traffic" encore seemed tired, but that may have just been the
fact that Kang's high-pitched voice simply can't do Jimi justice. "Long
Gone" was solid, but it would have taken a whirlwind to live up to the
second set.

Saturday was a mix of the three. Despite its moments of joyful bounce,
"Inspiration" is simply too preachy to pass, and "Lost" is not far ahead of
it. Nonetheless, even these two could not taint a set that opened with
"Restless Wind" (even if it was a bit brief), swept through "Want", a
semi-funky round that served as a perfect Kang vehicle as he blistered the
electric mandolin, and closed with a resurgent "Climb" and its easy,
swaying acoustic segue into a pounding "Rhythm of the Road" that once again
conjured Phish in its electrified bombast. While SCI has been swimming into
phishier and phishier waters by their own natural progression in recent
years, it seems a particularly timely move in light of the hiatus, and the
clear comparison does not take away from the fact that they explode into
brilliant jams during these stretches. Jimmie Vaughan strutted on stage
with his highly gelled pompadour to open the second set with his own
"Boom-Bapa-Boom", which he inexplicably expected the crowd to sing along
with. His strongest moments fell during the brilliant lick swapping he and
Kang engaged in during the "Black and White" that followed. "Turn This
Around" with its early return is one of the brightest of the new tunes. It
slipped into a "Purple Rain"-ish jam before Kang began to tease "Land's End"
out of the silence. Whether the crowd simply missed the teases or became
over excited by them, we began a double time clap that stunned the band for
a moment, but, in a perfect example of their willingness to let the crowd
shape the show, they fell into a jam that immediately played off of the
crowd's pace before launching back into a staggering "Land's End" that
reminded any lingering doubters that the Cheese can stretch it with the best
of them, romping through this epic brilliantly. It was the clear highlight
of the night and, for many, the peak of the run.

The crowd's during the entire run were exceptional, spilling over the edges
of the venue, filling the Central Texas skies with shouts and praise, and
shaking the hollow grounds with dancing feet. It was the same spirit of
community that held so many of us captive on the third nigh the previous
year at Stubb's, despite torrents of wind whipped wind that fried the
soundboard. As the band gamely fought on un-miked a year ago, the heads
lingered, bobbing in approval to music that none could hear. The rain set
cut out during "Jellyfish", and after Keith let us all know that their
encore would be the make up set for the debacle, Kyle said something to the
effect of, "I think we left off somewhere around here…" and dropped the
funky vamp of the aborted invertebrate. While this final set may not have
been the most crisply played, as the band seemed as exhausted as the crowd,
it was ecstatic, rollicking through "Midnight Moonlight" and a "Round the
Wheel>Boogie On Reggae Woman>Round the Wheel" that sent cheek splitting
grins throughout the venue.

So then here we are, standing on the brink of a potentially explosive scene. The low is this – in the hippie-dippie spirit of love fests and hugs for
strangers, the band has taken it upon itself to craft songs to guide the
crowd through a spiritual search of Hallmarkian proportions. It often feels
like a self-help seminar, and even Keith's protestations that he doesn't
"want to sound preachy" in "Joyful Sound" don't change the fact that he
does. The lyrics of many of the newer songs read like the posters that
decorate high school classrooms under pictures of long distance runners amid
the changing foliage.

The inbetween is expected. The nature of exploratory improvisational
music dictates that nights like Thursday happen. Sometimes, the magic is
simply not there.

The high is this – more often than not, the magic is there. The
highlights of this run were the moments of explosive bliss and oneness that
keep us all flooding in the doors for a growing horde of explorers
nationwide. Perhaps more importantly though, the band seems dedicated to
rewarding their fans, and they are proactive in establishing and maintaining
a spirit of community and common decency within their scene. Sure is seems
namby-pamby from time to time, but their heart is in the right place and
their scene is better for it. It is a spirit that stems from the band's
energy and the love they project from the stage, not the words that fly from
their mouths. The Cheese scene is the friendliest, safest, and most
inclusive of the bunch, and that cannot be underestimated. The band has the
talent, the know how, and the love for their crowd that they need to leap
into the next strata. Now they just need the songs to measure up to the
task. Anyone know what Robert Hunter is up to these days?

4/12/01 – The Backyard, Austin, TX

Set 1: Rollover > How Mountain Girls Can Love, Buggin' Out, Barstool, Way
Back Home, Outside Inside > Daryl

Set 2: Best Feeling > Rollover, Let it Go, Indian Creek, Joyful Sound > Tom
Thumb's Blues > Jam# > On the Road

Encore: Mouna Bowa, Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms

  1. with Swingtown chorus and Crosseyed and Painless teases

First Time Played: Buggin' Out
4/13/01 – The Backyard, Austin, TX

Set 1: Born on the Wrong Planet, Sing a New Song, SKAT, Up the Canyon,
Freedom Jazz Dance, Little Hands > Jam, Smile

Set 2: Lonesome Fiddle Blues, Cedar > Jam > Sittin' On Top of the World,
MLT, Missin' Me > Jam > Sand Dollar, Shantytown

Encore: Crosstown Traffic, Long Gone

4/14/01 – The Backyard, Austin, TX

Set 1: Restless Wind, Lost, Inspiration, Hold What You've Got, Want, Climb >
Jam > Rhythm of the Road

Set 2: Boom-Bapa-Boom#, Black and White#, Latinissmo, Take a Little Time,
Turn This Around > Jam > Land's End

Encore: Jellyfish > Midnight Moonlight, Round the Wheel > Boogie on Reggae
Woman > Round the Wheel

  1. with Jimmie Vaughan

First Time Played: Boom-Bapa-Boom (Jimmie Vaughan cover)

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