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Published: 2004/11/02
by Philip Walter

The String Cheese Incident, Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Thomas Wolfe Auditorium- 10/22 & 23

My Last Road Trip of the Year

Consulting a stack of debit card receipts from my recent trip to see The String Cheese Incident and reluctantly relaying the news to my checkbook, I find myself asking one question: Why do I do it?

Why do I put myself through this, time and again? Why do find myself unwittingly drawn to in anticipation of my favorite band's tour announcements like a dog digging through the household litter box hoping to find the day's fresh deposits? Why, upon release of said tour dates, do I immediately rush to a calendar and plot the most likely run of shows so I can empty a bit of my checking account a month-and-a-half before the shows even start in order to secure my admission and avoid joining the untouchable caste of the ticketless masses? And why then do I squander the bulk of my paid vacation at work to drive as much as 16 hours (though it was only 9 to Asheville) from my home in Little Rock, AR? Why, I wallow, having added up the damage from my most recent trip, did I rush off to one of the kindest places in the southeast and leave myself with only fifty bucks to spend until payday (a week from today)?

Maybe that's it: the beautiful places I get to see. Early in the spring this year I saw Keller Williams in Memphis, TN and Fayetteville, AR. This summer I spent time in Clinton Lake State Park outside Lawrence, KS; camped and explored in and around Telluride, CO, the most beautiful place I saw this summer; camped at the Kings River Retreat near Eureka Springs, AR; drove through a hurricane to get to Blue Ridge Harvest Fest; and most recently spent time with some good friends in Asheville, NC, perhaps the coolest town east of the Mississippi.

Or maybe that's what it is: the new friends I make and old friends I see along the way. From Kevin and his bunch out of Yellowstone National Park (whom I met in Telluride), to Gil, of fame (whom I met riding the rail in Asheville), to Chris and Hope who graciously opened their home to us in Asheville, every trip offers fantastic camaraderie.

Oh yeah, and there are also these fabulous bands making this magical music. As for the shows themselves, first off, there was a new stage setup what is this, the fourth different one now? is right on, Kang and Billy need to be next to each other. It was amazingly like Fall 2000 seeing them stand side by side watching each other play. And the hookahs and pillows made it feel like an "opium den," as my girlfriend Amy pointed out. One Step Closer > Born on the Wrong Planet > Lester Had A Coconut started things off Friday night, and I personally thought it was an amazing way to start. The lyrics are beautiful in One Step and BOTWP never disappoints me. I have been a fan of older stuff, long retired, since about 2001 and hearing Lester Had A Coconut had me hopping and cheering, spinning as delicately as I could, a rail-riding dervish. The rest of the set was basically unimpressive to me, though I always like Close Your Eyes.

Except for the opening combo, I agreed with Amy that the song selection was a little lackluster. Then came an amazing Lonesome Fiddle Blues to open the second set, which Amy called even before I did. This was as high energy as it could get. It Is What It Is followed, which we both like, and sandwiched inside it was a poignant version of Fearless dedicated to Dylan and Melissa. Some FOC's thought it was a little too poignant and lacked the energy to keep us all on the same page, but I loved it … and Travis got to sing, come on. Now, I've been looking for a Blue Bossa for years, and they gave it too me, slammed right into a Joyful Sound too. I couldn't have asked for a better way to close the second set.

Saturday night there was no rail riding for us. We did come with two paper bags full of canned goods for the Conscious Alliance (though we totally left the show without thinking to claim our posters). Travis acknowledged, once the boys came out Saturday, that one-ton of food had been collected in Asheville and apologized for his admonishment (due to a poor food drive showing) the night before. Whatever reservations Amy or myself may have had about the setlist Friday night was wiped away Saturday. Magic Carpet Ride is a great, high-energy opener. That went into Lonesome Road Blues, which is a rarity. The jam from Panama Red into Latinissmo shows just how well these guys listen to each other. I was floored.

Next was my first Betray the Dark. I like this song, but I'm still getting to know it. It seems to have some heavier themes than what they normally play … lots of potential. Anyway, BAM! was, well, BAM! And Drums was outstanding. Jason really adds a lot to this group. Way Back Home has developed a new opening, and this really illustrates how this band can take old material and rework it to keep it fresh. This may be the key to longevity that other bands have been unable to place into the lock. At any rate, it was a nice set closer.

Following the break, the Rivertrance was as tight as any I can remember (except the one here at the Thomas Wolfe four years prior). It wasn't too techno-ey, which I thought was nice. It seemed Friday was the night for techno. A bit later when they started The Joker, all I could think of was seeing Billy run, and man did he ever. He ran left, and right, and forward … he even managed to take a pillow from the opium den, bang it around on the floor a few times, and then toss it into the crowd.

High On A Mountaintop is a great tune for Asheville, but the San Jose > Best Feeling > Desert Dawn was phenomenal. Kang didn't overdo the singing (Bobby-style) as he can sometimes do. And I know I may be walking out on a lonely limb here, but the bouncy opening section in Desert Dawn made me feel like I was listening to the lilting middle section of YEM. It was infused with that kind of positive energy that just makes you feel like you can open your chest and let a flock doves fly out.

By the time they came back for the encore, we all wanted some kickin' bluegrass in Asheville, and Billy Constable came out for the encore to give it to us, although I did think the banjo was a little too low in the mix for my taste (though that may have just been where I was sitting). Either way, John Hardy was a great bluegrass tune to get, and the Shenandoah Breakdown was standard with Billy C.

Now, this was the first show I had ever seen the boys leave the stage and come back on for a second encore, so they really could have played another BAM! and I'd have been smiling, but what they did was far more memorable. Ring of Fire brought the house down. Then when Kang played those first notes of Shine, it was all the more so.

And now that I'm back home, with eighteen-plus hours on the road behind me, a day of work already under my belt, and my checkbook safely balanced, it's still hard to say why I do what I do. But not because I'm losing interest in seeing live music, or because in the end I am feeling ripped off in some way. No, it's hard to say just why I'll be plotting tours for years to come, because there is no one answer. It's not just that the places I see are so beautiful, or that the people I see are so kind, or even that The String Cheese Incident is doing things right now I've never seen any band in my life do. No, it's some colloidal blend of all these things that when crushed into a single form becomes rigid and inadaptable, but when allowed to be just what is, "a mixture with properties between those of a solution and fine suspension," it defies form and just cannot be put into words.

"How to tell it?" goes the phrase from Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. "How to tell it?"

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