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Published: 2001/07/23
by Scott Caffrey

String Cheese Incident- Central Park, NYC 7/20

The Big Apple, All Smothered With Cheese

From growing organically in the mountains of Colorado, and relying almost solely on their live chops, the quintet with the funny name forced their way onto Central Park’s famed SummerStage. With countenances all aglow, and perma-grins threatening achy jaws, the modest rock stars must have forgotten they were playing to the most cynical city in the world. The String Cheese Incident has played New York before, but in smaller theaters and ballrooms. And, as any witness to last October’s gig at the Hammerstein Ballroom will attest, the band outgrew the 3,000-capacity venue before it even stepped on stage.

Graduating to Central Park drew a slightly more outsized crowd. It seems that not only has the good Cheese spread East, but its arrival was highly anticipated. Conversations catalyzed by “Why can’t there be more Cheese in New York?” made sense observing the antsy throng. Just nine months prior, guitarist Bill Nershi offered a hopeful prediction in that way via Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” with the chorus “I’m going back to New York City/ I do believe I’ve had enough.” And thankfully, the notion of being a Western band never discouraged Incidents from occurring, even as the houses appeared less-than-packed just one year ago.

But it’s foolhardy to dwell on the past, because the “next band to break” just popped its cherry in New York City. Lest anyone try to deny it, including the band itself, The String Cheese Incident is, officially, a big band with a loyal following.

The Cheese brought a cool mountain breeze with them and shared it with the normally sweaty Manhattan. The opening trio of songs was catalyzed by the happy-jazz grooves of “Birdland.” After leaving “Miss Brown’s Teahouse” the next, and most obvious choice was “Suntan,” in homage to those standing stage left that squinted at the blazing sunset. “Turn this Around” did its best to drag the sun out of the sky, revealing a clear black sheet bedecked with stars, like polka dots on negative film. But feedback seemed to plague mandolin/ violinist Michael Kang each time he stretched the bounds of his mandolin, forcing him to drop out sporadically. The song suffered a bit as a result.

The night really started to simmer, though, when hometown hero and pedal steal monster Robert Randolph was brought out as a special guest. Randolph led the charges into a mesquite-flavored, spaghetti western drawl that evoked Josie Wales lurking backstage. The languid, metallic streaks evolved into the sublime “Sing a New Song” from SCI’s latest studio effort, Outside Inside. Kang’s violin workout on the next segue wrought the masterfully played bluegrass standard “Orange Blossom Special” that had the whole crowd a-clappin’ in time and whoopin’ for more.

The diverse stylings of the first set showed off String Cheese Incident’s dexterity and song craft. So when percussionist Michael Travis’s antics opened the second set, and he traded stage-laps with Nershi, the crowd knew it was in for a ride. Loosely tuning and fiddling with different sounds to find the next hole to fill and jump-start a song, Nershi vamped Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, and suddenly we were off like a freight train leaving town, roaring into the wonderfully played “Missin’ Me” ->”Mauna Bowa.”

Next, keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth strapped on the squeeze-box for a hoe-down. “Barstool” proved that while it may be hard to pin down all of the String Cheese influences, they have carved themselves a blended niche that can be described no other way than something akin to happy mountain music.

Recognizing the crowd’s anxious energy and good vibes, bassist Keith Moseley’s summer-funk anthem, “Joyful Sound” helped spread the collective grin into a full-fledged smile. The highlight of this jam however, was a raucous, rock-star mandolin solo by Kang that sliced through the song’s mid-section. The unique squeals and groans emanating from the eight strings echoed throughout the park.

It was Hollingsworth’s turn to shine coming out of the “Joyful” jam, scraping frowzy rhythms from the bottom of his organ. As the funk morphed to a jaunty Tootsian groove, Peter Tosh’s reggae standard “Stop That Train” emerged and the beautiful team vocals of its chorus shoved instrumentation to the backseat.

A spacey bridge dawdled on but allowed time to observe the surroundings. The String Cheese Incident makes it very easy to be a fan and spectator. Feeling the energy of Nershi as he hopped in place to Travis’ increasing beats, sipping an ice-cold beer and watching the lights use trees as a backdrop turned this gig into a backyard get-together as the band convened for the jam’s walloping climax. Closing out the show with the foot-tapper “Smile” placed the perfect cap on the night.

The soulful encore saw Randolph return as he took the weepy lead into the long-lost “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” As nice as it was to hear those long, droopy picks on the pedal steel, Nershi wisely read the crowd and strummed his acoustic to a medium pace, allowing every member a spot to trade licks and solo.

Those who fled from the city this past weekend do not know what they missed, and will never know. For talking, and even writing, about an Incident is just one aspect. To truly feel its power, you just gotta experience it for yourself. And to those of you who have enjoyed them in these intimate venues the past few years, consider yourself lucky. Now brace yourselves for bigger crowds and some difficulty buying tickets.

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