Monday, December 5, 2011

Review & Photos: String Cheese Incident 12.1.11 Tower Theater ~ Upper Darby, PA

Words: Carly Shields
Pictures: Dan Galvano

My first incident with String Cheese came in 2005 at Big Summer Classic in New York, and from that first light hearted, dance party show, I was hooked on their music. As my tastes have changed, Cheese has faded in and out and not until 2009 did I see them again at Rothbury Festival. I wasn’t aware of their half-hiatus or lack of touring and didn’t even realize that this was their only 2009 performance. Now I’ve just seen them a third time and fully regret not making more of their music and shows.

Thursday night, Bill Nershi came out, barefoot of course, and enthusiastically welcomed the already psyched up crowd. They opened the set with a jovial “Search” featuring Kang on violin. People were running around the theater getting settled and finding good dancing room, and many still just getting to the show, during “Born on the Wrong Planet,” after which the band must have felt the fullness of energy in the venue because we got our first taste of interesting, quirky, characteristic Cheese. It was a new track, called “Colliding,” that took spacey, Hann-heavy verses into an explosive, bright chorus. Hollingsworth had the spotlight into the main jam, which was climactic and powerful in it’s own right.

They moved into a The Band cover of “Ophelia,” which melted my heart but might not have been so moving if I hadn’t been watching “The Last Waltz” over and over again for the past few weeks. In sticking with the verb-theme of the set, the band played an appropriately titled “Climb” that seemed to reach higher and higher in an inspirational way. SCI took it down a notch then with a groovy “Sweet Melinda” that led into a super heady and extensive jam that wandered delicately, got dark at points, and seemed to explain another part of the song that words couldn’t. They ended the first set on an uproarious tone, using the electronic and almost tribal dance-party “Valley of the Jig,” which also got mischievous and dark but no one could help jumping to it.

The second set opened with a hard-rockin’ “Piece of Mine” that drew any lingering smokers back in a rush and went somewhat hurriedly into a massive and particularly bubbly “Birdland” sandwich, smushing “Flying East Jam” and “Remington Ride” between the uppity bookends. To mellow it out again, the band chose a ten-minute “These Waves” that was strong, yet simple and beautiful. “Pack it Up” toon on a very Dead-y tone in it’s jam, while still maintaining that simple touch that makes it distinctively SCI. I can’t help but compare the bands in this instance, especially with the wicked drum solo at the end largely featuring percussionist Hann but not neglecting Michael Travis by any means.

When the rest of the band reappeared after the intense five-or-so minutes of pure drums, which was amazing to watch from above the drummers as they pulsed out rhythms I couldn’t have dreamed of, they busted out what I consider a String Cheese classic, “Johnny Cash.” Perhaps it’s the likeableness of the lyrics, that “Johnny Cash don’t smoke hash,” or the comfort and unity that comes with reference to a group-loved character, but the song has always been so quintessential SCI for me that when I heard the first couple bluegrass chords ring out, I knew they had really got me this time. I wish we had been in a field on a hot summer day, because the dirt would have been flyin’ around our feet.

They followed that jaunt with another definitively Cheese song, “Texas,” which led into a flavorful and expansive, nearly 20-minute jam of the ages. Easily the musical climax of the set, it was also the closing song and came too abruptly for the depth from which they were pulling these musical combinations. I wanted it to go on forever, to continue pulling at my head-strings and surprising me with their every move, but the show must end, and the encore was something to be happy about as well.

In a perfect Cheese-y way, they chose “Good Times Around the Bend,” a pleasant and light string melody to kick off the 2-song encore, but took it right back up for the final song of the evening, a jittery and fun “San Jose.” For the last ten minutes, the lights danced as wildly as ever, and the audience took full advantage of this last hoorah, shouting coordinated “woo’s” during the appropriate times. It ended on such an upbeat, positive vibe, though the show had gone up and down throughout the night. Overall, like most String Cheese shows, it was a beautifully pleasant and lovely event, from the happy performers, to the cosmic and joyous jams, to the appreciative, amazed crowd. The show hooked me, and I’ve heard only good things about New York, so hopefully it won’t be another year before Cheese decides to come back and woo us again.

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