Words by Ralph Miller | Photos by Rod Snyder
Upper Darby, PA — The String Cheese Incident truly are a uniquely American institution. Born in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in 1993 out of a shared love for bluegrass and skiing, SCI spent the better part of 15 years on a relentless tear through the continent. The name of the game for these guys has always been “Do-It-Yourself,” starting with the formation of their own record label, SCI Fidelity Records they have since also formed a ticketing company (which famously took the “big guns” to court in 2003 for violations of the Anti-Trust Act) , their own merchandise company and even a fan travel agency, all the while maintaining the original lineup of Michael Kang on guitar and violin, Bill Nershi on (mostly) acoustic guitar, Kyle Hollingsworth on keys, Keith Moseley on bass and Michael Travis on drums, adding percussionist Jason Hann in 2006 to fill out their eclectic, world-influenced sound.
It had unfortunately been about 7 years since the last time I saw “the Incident” and I was more than a little stoked to get the opportunity to see them in one of my favorite Philly-area venues, and a unique American institution in its own right, the Tower Theatre. The Tower is large enough to accommodate most big name acts out there today, but still maintains a classy and very intimate vibe. The band has been on a touring hiatus since the summer of 2007, but you wouldn’t know it from walking into the Tower Theatre last Thursday night. They’ve always been one of the tightest outfits on the improvisational rock scene, with Kang and Hollingsworth truly being in the top echelon of their craft and Nershi and Moseley providing unwavering, pulsating rhythmic support behind them.
With the first oddly syncopated chords of “Search”, it was clear they hadn’t missed a beat and they were back in Philly to do what they do best: get people moving. They then threw us an old-school bone, with the title-track from their ’97 debut, Born On The Wrong Planet. I wasn’t familiar with the next tune, which I later learned is a newer offering called “Colliding”, but that didn’t keep me from grooving out hard to it. Every jamband knows that you can’t go wrong with a cover of The Band, so just to make sure everybody was still paying attention, they gave us a solid “Ophelia”, which served it’s sing-along purpose well. Then it was time to really get down and dirty with the next three tunes, the apply-named “Climb”, with its slowly but surely building crescendo, then a deeply grooving “Sweet Melinda” which led into the Electro-Tribal jam “Valley of the Jig”. This is where the over-arching dynamic of the band truly reared it’s (sometimes ugly) head. There is an innate power struggle of sorts going on nearly all the time between Kang and Nershi, with Kang trying to push the dance vibe harder and harder, perhaps thinking that’s the only way to keep the twirlers and tweakers twirling, tweaking and coming back for more. Nershi, on the other hand, gives off an almost John Henry-like vibe of fighting against the machines with good old fashioned, barefoot acoustic guitar. In some of these winding, pulsing jams he almost seems to lose interest, and you can tell he’d rather be doing a little bluegrass ditty on the back porch than cranking out “rave” music for the Bisco Nation. He abides though, and Kang has his moment of electronica-esque future rock. They end the set there with the crowd fully-engrossed and officially along for the ride.
Hollingsworth took over lead vocal duties on the second set, arena-rock opener, “Piece of Mine” before they got down to some more good old fashioned Cheesieness with their jamming, signature take on the Weather Report classic, “Birdland”. They playfully threw in a little old school SCI bluegrass number, “Remington Ride” before returning to the “Birdland” theme. “These Waves” followed, which was solid, if a little uneventful, but the “Pack It Up”, really got us all moving again. Even the drum duel which flowed out of the jam kept the crowd’s attention, as opposed to serving as a good reason to use the facilities, or get another drink, as many drum sections will tend to do. The light-hearted bluegrass Cheese classic “Johnny Cash” followed and officially had everybody hooked, and singing along to the ridiculous refrain, “Johnny Cash don’t smoke hash”. But it was the “Texas” that came after that was really the highlight of the night for me. With a nearly twenty-minute long jam, this was the Cheese in all their glory, and took me back to the first time I had the privilege of attending an Incident some twelve years past. Even after stretching out, twisting and turning the groove this way and that, and melting so many faces, it seemed when they closed the set there that they had cut it maybe a little short, but they made up for it with the two-song encore, “Good Times Around The Bend”, one of my all-time favorites and “San Jose” which gave us one more chance to shake loose before turning back to face the cold Philadelphia night.
All in all, it was a pretty amazing night with some truly gifted musicians and a few thousand really wonderful people (Cheese always brings out the nicest heads… As one concert goer put it, “this is crunchiest show I’ve been to since the Dead in ’94”). SCI did not disappoint after being absent for so long from the Philly scene, and it left this reviewer hoping it won’t be nearly as long before his next Incident.
Set 1: Search, Born On The Wrong Planet, Colliding, Ophelia, Climb, Sweet Melinda > Valley Of The Jig
Set 2: Piece Of Mine, Birdland > Remington Ride > Birdland, These Waves, Pack It Up > Drums > Johnny Cash, Texas, E: Good Times Around The Bend, San Jose
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