by DJ Mixolydian
The army of tie-dye, hacky sacks, and patchouli oil came in full steam ahead to Oakland’s Fox Theatre on October 4th for a ceremony that could only be mastered by legendary 90’s jam band, The String Cheese Incident. Formed in the mountains of Colorado, String Cheese began as a bluegrass band with a strong influence from the Grateful Dead’s style of live improvisation.
Cheese began the evening by delving into their newer contemporary works, straying a bit away from their bluegrass rock origins. They opened with the soulful “Little Hands” sliding seamlessly into “Betray the Dark” off of their hit 2005 album One Step Closer. They continued off this work next by performing the single from that album, “Get Tight”, to the relief of those who may have not delved into the deeper previous tracks (“Get Tight” being their second most popular original on Spotify). Rhythm guitarist Bill Nershi led the band into a beautiful rendition of “Hotel Window”, a tearful tune of loneliness and confusion. The first set closed with “MLT”, a Miles Davis-inspired jazz number from their 1998 album Round the Wheel, jammed into “It Is What It Is”, featuring a 10-minute long group improvisation built around drum solos from percussionists Michael Travis and Jason Hann.
As the lights came on for intermission, and the Motown hits the band had chosen for set-break music began to play, I couldn’t help but notice the young age of the crowd. I’ve been attending shows of various jam bands like the Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, Umphrey’s McGee, etc. for years and I hadn’t seen a crowd this young since the first show John Mayer played with the new Grateful Dead formation, Dead & Company. This genre hit its height of popularity in the 90’s with acts like String Cheese, Phish, and Panic, so typically I seem to be surrounded by people closer to my father’s age than mine. But October 4th at the Fox was a pleasant surprise and made me hopeful that this subculture of music will live on.
As Cheese came back to the stage, none of us in the audience were prepared for the electric set we were about to witness. They opened with a powerfully funky combination of hits, “Dirk” jammed into “Born on the Wrong Planet”. With two of their funk staples, the audience was in full groove with bassist Keith Mosley holding down the low end. The improvisations took them to far out, spacey psychedelic jams as they weaved any way they could around the key they were playing in.
After getting the concertgoers feeling right, they brought it back to the basics with a traditional bluegrass cover, “Midnight Moonlight”, as made famous by legends Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe. One of the first songs they began performing as a band in Colorado, this classic campfire song has never left the Cheese repertoire. Following this, the band paid tribute to recently deceased Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who obviously left a tremendous impact on them, by playing a tune co-written by Hunter alongside Cheese keyboardist, Kyle Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth delivered a heartwarming message about how much of an impact Hunter’s lyrics and Dead music has had on his life. Once proper acknowledgements had been maid, the boys immediately went into a gritty funk/blues jam that slid into the famous “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers Band off their hit 1972 album Brothers and Sisters. This was just the 14th time the band had covered this famous instrumental in their 22 year history of thousands of live shows. After this rare bust-out, Cheese delivered another hit, “Jellyfish” a funk number advising audience members to stay in bed the morning after drinking too much tequila the night before and to avoid getting into romantic endeavors in Santa Fe. Following “Jellyfish” they played their hit single off their most recent album Song in My Head, “Rosie”. They took off their instruments, and with that the second set was over. I looked around at the faces of astonishment, everyone in disbelief of the amazing jams that just took place. In my years of going to live shows, the “Jessica” we heard was one of those songs I just never wanted to end. Cheese came back on to encore with two more hits from the late 90’s: “Floyd > Restless Wind”.
As everyone filed out of the arena, the talk seemed pretty much unanimous that this was a top show from their current West Coast tour. Until the next time I see the String Cheese Incident, I will definitely be playing the live taping of this show on long car rides or walks with my dog.