The String Cheese Incident, Telluride, CO 8/21 & 22
Cheese, like wine, requires sufficient age before it can pass the connoisseur's test. This similarity might explain why the two go so well together, and this time-honored nugget of wisdom was proven yet again to me this past weekend at Telluride Town Park, where The String Cheese Incident put on a miniature festival a summertime menagerie featuring the musical figurines of Tony Furtado, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Keller Williams, and The String Cheese Mountain Boys themselves. These guys are giants in the scene but there in Telluride Town Park, eclipsed on three sides by the dramatic diorama of numerous mountain peaks, we all seemed like figurines in some insignificant yet subtly meaningful drama.
Telluride and the Scene
The venue was amazing, and the small size of the crowd promised increased intimacy and decreased bullshit (those two have an inverse relationship no matter where you go). And while there was much beauty in this intimate setting, let me say at the onset of this review that if you are one of those folks who consider the SCI scene to be as pristine as the scenery leading into Telluride, you are sorely mistaken. String Cheese was discovered long ago, and the jamband world's best-kept secret they no longer are. See the problem with aging cheese is that, while it tends to taste better and better, it also tends to pick up mold along the way. And so while many of the folks, including our camping neighbors from Yellowstone National Park, proved to be outstanding individuals, SCI appears to have has caught some of the viral infections that have soiled the scenes of other great bands. As home-hitting proof, I found my Coleman lantern had grown legs and walked right out of my campsite after Saturday's show.
That having been said, the scenery was spectacular. The stage was built of beautiful auburn-colored wood and melted into a tree-covered hillside like some sonic-religious altar in this naturally surreal sanctuary. The town was perfectly relaxed and provided just the right amount of civilized back-drop to the freakiness that would ensue in Town Park. Driving in, after chewing up the 1,500 miles between Little Rock and Telluride, we were greeted by a flashing sign that declared alternately "PREPARE TO MERGE," "MUSHROOM FEST PLUS," "STRING CHEESE MUSIC FEST." Needless to say, we felt right at home and judging by the patience of those directing us into Town Park, the town of Telluride knew just what to expect. My girlfriend and I even had the pleasure of meeting Kyle, who pointed out the coincidence of String Cheese "just happening" to play Telluride the same weekend as the Mushroon Fest, at one of the local bars Friday night. A comfortable place for all, to be sure.
Jim Lauderdale was supposed to play Saturday before Spearhead. Still not sure what happened there, but as my girlfriend and I were getting ready to head to the stage, Michael Franti was being introduced, so we expedited things and headed down there. It was my first time seeing Spearhead, and I must say they are inspiring. Between familiar refrains of "How ya'll feelin'?!" a question that apparently bears repeating some highlights were "Sometimes," "Stay Human," "Everyone Deserves Music," and "Bomb the World," the last of which I heard from my campsite as I prepared for the main event forthcoming.
Now I must establish that for the longest time, time spent trading countless bootlegs through the mail and reading numerous mailing lists, I endured the debates. I was never one to get involved, likening comparisons of one band to another to arguments about how many angels could fit on the head of a pin, but now the gloves are off. I have heard people say that SCI plays "fairy music," that they are R-Rated to Phish's X-Rating, that they lack a certain "umph" to inherit the pole position on this jam-band track. Well, all of that is bullshit. For the record, spine-tingling energy and fearless musical evolution make these guys the ticket to have these days in the jamband scene. They have continually evolved from their first days together in Crested Butte, assimilating bluegrass standards and originals, then mastering rock covers and originals, before adding some serious Latin and afro-Cuban songs to their repertoire. Today they play so many different styles of music, from British pop to Brazilian folk, that to call them eclectic would be like calling Michael Phelps a good swimmer.
When the Barefoot Boys (admittedly not barefoot in the chilly, sometimes rainy conditions this past weekend) took the stage Saturday evening, they noted how great it was to be playing in Telluride and announced they were going to play the first song they'd ever played there, then promptly belted out "Dudley's Kitchen." For the opener, it was energetic and a nice throwback. Next came "Desert Dawn," a newer, upbeat Kang song, which made for some great hip-shaking. "Got What He Wanted" kind of whizzed by me, making way for "Yo Se," which was sweet because I had seen them working it out with percussionist Jason Hann at soundcheck earlier in the afternoon. This was a nice Latin intermission before the great new Keith song "Look At Where We Are." Then a funky "Miss Brown's," which is not one of my favorites, but it was absolutely inspired, with the band weaving the jams into the most elaborate tapestries, every member with his own color thread, with his own square to add to the quilt.
The second set opened with "Shantytown" and Michael Franti came out for his rap session and injected some Bob Marley, with "Get Up Stand Up" and "Exodus" verses, then finished the jam with a transcendent "A Love Supreme" refrain. Following "Best Feeling," "Black Clouds" was one the only other bluegrass played the entire first evening. After Kyle's "45th of November," which is a beautiful tune, "Outside Inside" and "The Sirens," "Little Hands" closed out the set. This was one of the better versions I can remember with Kyle on accordion rather than piano for much of the middle section.
Then came the defining moment of the first night with the "Howard" encore. After Travis asked the crowd, "Are you ready to rock?!" what followed was the space-iest, trance-iest version "Howard" I have ever heard, during which Keller Williams came on stage for a quick rendition of the Looney Dance, followed by Billy's question, "Who was that masked man?!" Billy belted out the rhythm line to lead the jam while Kyle added techno ambience on top of which Kang weaved around artfully. Travis gyrated behind his drum-set throne, and all the while Jason Hann built energy by banging on some strange percussive device adding more weirdness to the scene. The crescendo was absolutely out of this world and sent me blissfully back to my campsite. Despite finding my lantern gone, I was anxiously awaiting the next night's show.
Tony Furtado came on promptly at 4:00 on Sunday and thanked a local music shop for providing him with a banjo, which I thought was strange, considering the fact this guy plays the banjo for a living. I wonder what exactly happened to his banjo. Did he leave it in Boulder? Did he break it? I wanna know! Anyway, the highlight of his set was "Swayback Jim," a song about a horse with a miserable swayback who dreams at night of being a great racehorse.
Next came Keller, who always impresses me with his song selection. "Sunny Rain" was prefect as the drizzle came down in Town Park, "I'm happy dancin' in … sunny rain!" was the refrain. Then a song I hadn't heard him do before, Sublime's "What I Got." Some other highlights were "Moondance," "Ensuing Freakiness," "Moving Sidewalk," and "Shakedown Street," along with the common closer these days, "Celebrate Your Youth."
And now to the culmination of the weekend: SCI Sunday night. "Close Your Eyes" got things underway, as my girlfriend and I found ourselves standing about 10 rows from the stage next to a massive mud-puddle. Then a beautiful new Billy ballad called "One Step Closer" led us through a slowly-developing segue into a resplendent version of "Mouna Bowa," during which the drizzle and distant sunshine worked together to form a gorgeous rainbow arching over the peaks behind us. The crowd was dancing and spinning, occasionally stopping to point out the rainbow, all in awe of the moment. Keith's bass work really shined on this one. During "Boogie On Reggae Woman," I was beside myself, trying to keep myself from shaking long enough to capture the rainbow with my girlfriend's camera. I got a couple of shots and headed back to the front of the crowd.
By the time "Boogie On" was finished, the rainbow was all but gone, and Tony Furtado stepped on stage to play slide guitar for "All Blues." From there they segued into "Sittin' On Top Of The World" with Tony busting out the borrowed banjo. Then came the angelic, Franklin's Tower-like jam into "100 Year Flood," and finally "Come As You Are." This song is not one of my favorites, but the jam in this version jockeys with the "Howard" from night one and the "Na Melody > Drums > Rivertrance" that would close the second set of night two for the highlight of the weekend. The jam was every bit as good as anything I've heard them or STS9 or Eckobase play in the past.
Keller came on for the start of the second set, playing "Fuel For The Road," "Alligator Alley" and "Freaker." Then came "It Is What It Is," the other song played at soundcheck Saturday afternoon, followed by "BAM!" the indisputable one-hit-wonder of SCI Fidelity Radio. In spite of its ubiquity, however, the funky jam lured me to the front, leaving my girlfriend, waiting anxiously for her "Na Melody," behind. Then, as soon as Keith started hitting that distinctive bassline, I found her and we headed back to the front-"Home … Is where I want to be … But I guess I'm already there!" Most of the band members stepped off stage after "Na Melody" yielding to "Drums." Travis looked orgasmic, elated to have Hann to join him for ten minutes or so. This ebbed and flowed for several minutes through a number of themes, including a wild djimbe solo by Hann, before the rest of the band came back for "Rivertrance." One last time, The String Cheese Incident showed their diversity by diving into psychedelic, trancey waters before charging into the song's speed-freak Celtic riff.
By the time the "Restless Wind" encore came to pass, many shared feelings of bliss … and reluctance as the weekend drew to a close.
The Ride Home
The ride home would prove sad and at the same majestic. A stop at Mesa Verde National Park, Durango, and Four Mile Falls outside Pagosa Springs, combined with a picturesque ride through the Carson National Forest, gave some sweetness to our otherwise bitter three-day drive back to Little Rock, AR preparing to face yet another return from Fantasy-Land to Real Life.