String Cheese Incident, Palace Theatre, Albany, NY -10/9
Suddenly, String Cheese Incident started to drink skim milk. Despite their stature as skinny Colorado ski bums, String Cheese Incident gained considerable weight while breaking from the club-circuit sometime around summer 2000, seemingly bogged down with being a "bigger band," instead of refining into a "better band." Regularly staging quirky, awkward spectacles, String Cheese forgot that success stomachs best in stages, thus slowing their musical evolution considerably. Yet when Colorado's five favorite children strolled into Albany's Palace Theatre on Thursday October 9th, the group finally embraced the Adkins diet: they're thinner and tighter.
Relative strangers, String Cheese Incident last ventured to New York's Capital District just short of two years ago. During that arena performance, String Cheese packed the spacious RPI Field House, enlisting Medeski, Martin, and Wood as openers and filling the airy venue with extended improvisations that remained lost in translation. Returning to the relatively intimate Palace Theatre, String Cheese Incident seemed revived, refining their jams to include elements of Americana without cluttering their string-layered mosaic. In fact, the group's fiddles, mandolins, bongos, and other worldly instruments were used to color the group's instrumental collective, instead of swallowing their sound in a sea of solos.
A throwback to their recent arena and amphitheatre forays, String Cheese Incident juiced up their jams by placing them in a heavy, electric rock context, with the stone-solid rhythm section of Keith Moseley and Michael Travis forming the bedrock of their foundation. With Kyle Hollingsworth's funky organ and Michael Kang's machine-gun mandolin acting as duel leads, String Cheese shook the intimate theater like an arena, emphasizing the theatre's grandeur by way of their equally revered lightshow.
Kick starting the evening in style, String Cheese Incident opened with fan-favorite "Miss Brown's Tea House," a choice selection showcasing the quintet's development. Sanded around the edges, "Miss Brown's" relied heavily on Travis, using Kang and Hollingsworth to tone the jam-vehicles belly. Mixing tracks from their freshly pressed "Untying the Knot" and concert warhorses, the quintet juxtaposed Travis' "Cedar Laurels," from the newly pressed Untying the Knot, alongside traditional bluegrass fable "The Old Home Place. " Throughout their three and a half-hour show, String Cheese Incident's juggling act seemed to entertain the rowdy crowd, many of whom pushed their way to the proscenium stage where dance space was ample.
Yet, despite the quick, tight cover of "The Old Home Place," String Cheese de-emphasized their bluegrass background. When Kang did pick up his fiddle, he layered his country-lines over a deep, funky background, creating an Americana rock and roll akin to the Allman Brothers' Brothers and Sisters era. With that image in mind, it's no surprise that String Cheese dusted off a rare version of that band's "Jessica," an up-tempo mid-show highlight. Showing remarkable signs of musical growth, String Cheese crafted a funky series of segues between "Valley of the Jig" and "Come as You Are," coloring their rock and roll journey with traces of fiddles, bongos, and quirky jazz beats. Linear in movement and ripe with Kang's electric mandolin and Bill Nershi's acoustic picking, Albany's second set proved to be one of String Cheese Incident's healthiest in years. A bubbly "100 Year Flood' and the appropriate "Bigger isn't Better," (making a return from a two-year hiatus) also helped spice the second set. Capping off their show with a three-song encore, String Cheese used their quaint, theater setting to play around with their audience. Travis and Hollingsworth jammed on a quick jazz standard, before the group concluded with two Cheese sing-a-longs: "Search" and "White Freightliner Blues."
But the evening's hidden gem didn't involve long, intricate jams. "Little Hands," a gentle, waltzing mixture of fiddle and electric mandolin, the gracefully aging ballad reminded downtown Albany's jam-denizens that String Cheese's sharpest muscle can't be flexed. Containing sharp lyrics and a melodic melody, the song reveals their introspective songwriting that elevates them to the fore. Yet Albany's performance suggests that the band is fitter, happier, and definitely more productive.