String Cheese Incident, Caesar’s Tahoe, South Lake Tahoe, NV- 3/29&30
Ever since the 2002 and 2003 new years runs in San Francisco The String Cheese Incident has all but forgotten of their "home away from home" in the Bay Area. With only a smattering of shows here in the last few years and none yet announced for 2005 many a Californian had to make the mountain trek to South Lake Tahoe, Nevada for a two night, mid-week Incident. For most of us it was the first time seeing String Cheese since they added percussionist extraordinaire Jason Hann. Anticipation was high and casino shows are always fun. It was one of those runs where Cheese-heads took over the hotel and casino: Our rooms were upstairs and Cheese was the houseband playing literally just an elevator ride away.
A spring storm brought freezing cold air and fresh snow to the mountains but inside, the ringing of money being won and lost was carried on warm smoky air. Though the shows had sold out at the last minute it seemed most found a way in (some buying tickets and others "borrowing" the bracelets that permitted in and out privileges). Overall security was lax though smokers were given some gruff reminders and more than one piece of glass was confiscated.
The venue itself was topnotch. Cascading tiers provided plentiful, well suited groove zones with good sound and lines of site all around. One treat was the venue was not oversold so it was easy to get around and their was plenty of room to get freaky. As an avid water drinker I was most impressed by the rows of cups of fresh ice water with no waiting and free! The last time I was in Nevada was for Phish, Vegas 04 where they literally shut off all water fountains so thirsty folks would have to buy water instead of refilling for free bunk!
Arriving just as the show started I was still able to find space up on the rail near Michel Kang. The opener was an unfamiliar and unremarkable tune called "Just One Story," but by the second song the band was in gear with Kang hitting some tasty notes in the cover of "Freedom Jazz Dance." Things really locked into gear as the crowd got its first old-school classic "Round the Wheel." The funk was laid on thick as it would be again and again on this night. The jam ended a little abruptly but the vibe was already rising. The high energy continued with "Latinissimo" featuring some nice interplay between drummer Michael Travis and their new energy infuser on percussion, Jason Hann.
But then "Don't Say" really seem to suck the life out of the building. It is too bad the Kyle Hollingsworth, one of the absolute best keyboardists around has a few of these songs that just don't flow. The jam that followed presented another problem. Billy Nershi began to occasionally trade in his acoustic guitar for electric a few years back. At times he sounds great on electric but on this particular occasion he locked into a riff that the rest of the band just didn't want to pick up on. Eventually he switched back to acoustic you could feel a communal sigh of relief from band and audience alike. Immediately The vibe changed as Kang launched into the crowd pleaser "Shine." Kang took the closing jam on a cool detour with some bluesy edgy runs that lit the place up and ended the set on a high note.One pleasure of this venue was the "in and out" privileges they afforded (probably to let patrons lose more money at the casino). Many people simply headed up to their rooms for the amenities offered there. Aside for the hellatious elevator line, this was a treat. It would be nice however if they could somehow flash the lights in the rooms as they do in the lobby when second set is about to start. This would have helped.
I returned to the venue to find the second set already underway. I asked a guy, " if this was the opener?" He replied, "no this is String Cheese" Anyway this set was all about the groove. "Come As You Are" kicked things off and quickly flowed into a trancy beat. This melted into Stevie Wonder's classic "Boogie On Reggae Woman" which blended back into "Come As You Are" after thoroughly enveloping us in thick gooey funk. After a little bluegrass and the catchy newer song "Eye Know Why," Cheese visited the Dylan classic "Quinn The Eskimo." Though some would disagree, this was the peak of the night for me. The song strikes a chord for those of us who heard Jerry sing it and the jam in the middle featured multiple searing solos laid over a funky tweak on the original melody.
The rest of the show I was really looking for an SCI classic jam vehicle such as "Texas" or "Land's End." Instead we got newer heavy hitters like "Howard." The band went way out into improvisational territory with more trancy space-funk but none of the over-the-top Kang solos for which some of us were jonesing.
For the encore I was again hoping for a rocker but instead got the slow Billy number "Heart of Saturday Night" that just served to chill out the energy before sending us packing. Over all it was a show built around somewhat repetitive trancy funk great for groovin' but not fulfilling in the soaring way The Cheese can be. Expectations were high for the second night.
Wednesday night: It doesn't look so hot on paper but Wednesday night was a smoker!
"High on a Mountaintop" kicked things off and by the second song of the night, "Got What he Wanted," the funk was back and the energy was high. "Catfish John" and "Ring of Fire" were relatively unremarkable but Kang's violin solo in "Little Hands" is always rousing and this one really helped the room lock into an emotional connection with the band. "On the Road" that ended the set was fun but I miss the days before Billy started playing electric.
when Kang took the final solo
Once again set break found many of us in rooms upstairs hoping not to miss any of the second set. This night I was not as lucky as the first: I returned to the venue just in time to hear the end of "Desert Dawn," one of my favorites. Perhaps it was just to cheer me up but I was told it was not a stellar version. Unfortunately the following song did little to improve my mood. Drummer Michael Travis' first foray into singing is a mixed bag. His song "Rainbow Serpent" drags as it winds through the verses, though it does have a redeeming anthem-like ending. Kyle took over from there and launched into a very well done "Way Back Home" that took us all way out before bringing us home. We were then treated to a dueling drum duo that was, for many, the peak of the night. Travis and Jason Hann took the energy way up and out. Towards the end their sound was as full and complex as a stage loaded with performers but more akin to some exceptional DJ born electronica. Both have incredible chops and the way they mesh makes it difficult to believe that they have only been playing together this last year. They received a well deserved and rousing ovation.It was at this time I realized that the reason SCI was playing so much trancy space-funk (a sound I thought they had started to veer away from a couple years ago) was the addition of Hann on drums. He brings so much movement and engaging dynamics to their rhythms that they can build on repetitive beats without getting stale or boring. Of course many were reminded of another great drum duo, (no not Zack and Jeffrey of STS9) Mickey Hart and Bill Kruetzmann of the Grateful Dead. Of course their styles are very different with the SCI guys beating much more of a techno rhythm out of their skins but with just as much passion and ability.
The band returned to the stage for "Barstool," the drummers took a break and things mellowed out a little bit but not for long. The band was tight and inspired for a monster "Rivertrance" that followed. It went way out and found a nice peak before returning to its foundation. A very solid version of the overplayed "search" came next. I figured the set was over but they managed to squeeze in an exceptionally short but punchy "Dirk."
The encore was a Kyle instrumental entitled "The Bridge" off of his new solo album. It was a catchy jazzy gospel-like number that plays well. They sealed the deal with an appropriate cover of Steve Miller's "Take The Money and Run." The show felt long and solid, not lacking the funk of the first night but with a little more balance of old-school Cheese thrown into the mix.The show was over but the night was young as throngs of heads and even the band descended on the casino. The lounge had Grateful Dead dance parties and even drum circles before the night was over. Security was surprisingly accommodating. It was one of those nights you just didn't want to end.
So The Cheese delivered a fulfilling Incident and few regretted making the trek to this high Sierra ski outpost. Although these shows were not of the earth-shattering intensity of some of those last fall when Jason Hann had just been added on percussion, SCI definitely came through with some of the highest energy shows Bay Area folks like myself have seen in awhile. SCI is big on the space-funk but they are doing it right with the added energy of Hann. Neither Kyle or Kang is taking over and pushing the band on to the highest peak of jamdom as they have in the past but both are still near the top of the field. The Cheese is in fine form and I look forward to the next Incident.Scott Shulimson