The String Cheese Incident at The Fillmore (photo: Joshua Huver)
For those who haven’t heard, the String Cheese Incident are the six piece Colorado based jam-grass pioneers steeped in EDM. 2019 marks the band’s 25th anniversary together.
Beginning Wednesday, October 2 and continuing through October 5, the String Cheese Incident (or SCI) performed two sold-out performances at the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Fox in Oakland. The pair of performances on Wednesday and Thursday were spectacular, carrying plenty of weight. SCI hadn’t performed in that room in over 20 years. The last time they did was a three-night run in March 1999.
The band is comprised of bassist Keith Moseley, drummer Michael Travis, mandolin and violinist Michael Kang, percussionist Jason Hann, guitarist Bill Nershi with wild-card keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth rounding out the lineup. Except for the addition of Hollingsworth in 1996 and Hann in 2006, the lineup has remained unchanged as long as they’ve been SCI.
The two nights at the Fillmore in particular were special, featuring a large number of covers, traditional bluegrass romps, Beats Antique-style drum and bass breaks, and nearly everything in between. Old school Cheese fans reveled in the uncommon song selections as much as casual fans and new attendees did in the covers. Not many bands capture the sound of sheer joy quite as strongly as SCI.
Wednesday night opened with four stand-alone tracks, beginning with the classic Nershi tune “Dudley’s Kitchen.” Only played a handful of times any given year, the tune used to be a staple in the early years. One of their oldest tracks, it appears on the 1997 album A String Cheese Incident. Soon after, they moved swiftly into the title track of their 1998 album ‘Round The Wheel before rounding into their first cover of the weekend, Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me.”
Following the 8th performance of the song since debuting it at Red Rocks in 2017, the band pulled out one of the biggest surprises of the night: “Ten Miles to Tulsa.” The 14th performance of the song overall since its debut in 2001, it previously hasn’t been played since April 2003.
Following “Tulsa,” the band seemed to have a collective release of energy. The next three songs of the set flowed seamlessly. Beginning with “Turn This Around,” a Kang tune that only sees one or two plays per year, the band turned a high energy seven-minute dance jam into “Nothing But Flowers” by Talking Heads. Following an extended drums and percussion solo from Travis and Hann, the second cover then melted into the set closing “Hi Ho No Show.” The energy in the dance jam six minutes in reminded me of something from a Jean Claude Van Damme fight scene before Kang entered on fiddle. The 70-minute set finished by 9:25pm.
30 minutes later, SCI strolled back onstage for the second set. They opened the set with one of their fan favorites, “Rollover.” Nershi went wild between verses, with Kang and Hollingsworth trading licks in the next jam. The real MVPs of the tune were Travis and Hann, though, with a hard-hitting back beat that never let up.
Eventually the song rolled over into one of their newer songs, “The Big Reveal.” Featuring a dark and brooding trance jam and discombobulated alternating rhythms between Travis and Hann, the various pieces of music wobbled together beautifully. After finding its footing, the tune continued to rise out of the confusion. After a few breaks, Kang caught the right wave and stormed out in front.
“Miss Brown’s Teahouse” was the third song of the set and saw Nershi hamming up the spotlight, even while Kang and Hollingsworth engaged in a second jam battle. After 10 minutes, with each limiting themselves across their arsenal of sounds to only a few basic tones tricks, Kang leaned heavy into his wah and declared himself victor. Then he took the song back into the ending around 10:44pm. That made it the third 15-minute song of the set.
SCI next moved into “Until The Music’s Over” for the 22nd time in the songs 12-year existence. Appearing on the 2005 album One Step Closer, the track was the first to clock in at less than 15 but still over 10 minutes long. A slow, psychedelic build led the audience into Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” They followed with the second cover of the set (and fourth of the show), transitioning to the Weather Report’s Grammy Award-winning tune “Birdland.”
The fifth and final cover followed, making it a triple-cover segue that started in funk, transitioned through jazz and into the bluegrass picking of Bill Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss.” At 11:22pm, they segued into their original tune, “Texas.” Appearing on the band’s first record, 1996’s Born on the Wrong Planet, the song is about getting pulled over in Texas and their RV searched. Even though the cops found their psychedelic mushrooms, the band got away. As the song says: “Well, they opened up that cabinet / And they found our little stash / But they didn’t know what it was and let us go / Minus eighty bucks in cash. / Get me out of this small-time Texas town / ’cause I don’t wanna be stuck in jail when the sun goes down / You can’t bust me if you don’t know what you found.” To end the show, they encored with the song “Smile.”
By Thursday, the cheese began to melt into a sparkly, stringy goo, and the only way through was to dance your way around it.
SCI returned with the hard-galloping bluegrass jam of “Can’t Stop Now” by the New Grass Revival. Featuring Moseley on vocals and a big organ run from Hollingsworth, Kang took control of the song at the end of the 7-minute track. SCI moved into the fifth-ever play of new song “I Want You” next. There were several points in the jam where the song completely switched genres, becoming unrecognizable. A 23-minute segment saw the band dust off “Rhum ‘n’ Zhouc” for the second time since 2017. The audience responded appropriately with a pulsating floor.
“Rhythm of the Road” off their 1997 self-titled release followed, with an instant crowd response from the opening piano chords. A monstrous rock and roll jam brought the energy to the rafters. Before I knew it, the tune had shifted gears into a more danceable jam. The intensity turned up tenfold as they slid into “Bhangra Saanj,” a song the band composed with Bay Area legends Beats Antique. Around quarter after 9, they took a brief pause before ending the set with an intense two-song combo. Beginning with Hollingsworth’s tune “Way Back Home” and transitioning back into the South Asian vibes with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” to end the set.
During the set break, the band was informed that evening would have been the 74th birthday of legendary songwriter John Perry Barlow. To commemorate the fact, SCI opened the second set with “Just Passing Through,” a song they had co-written with Barlow on their album Untying The Not. This performance marked the second performance of the song since 2015 and 22nd overall. After the main composition, the band entered a dream-like state with their music, completely contrary to anything they’ve done here yet.
Taking a sharp 180-degree pivot, “These Waves” entered with a heavy jungle-drum beat. Ten minutes later, Kang and Moseley used each other as springboards to enhance the ethereal and trance qualities Hollingsworth was putting out there with Hann and Travis. A flawless segue into the ultra-danceable “Djibouti Bump” marked the second song in a four-song segue that spanned the better part of an hour.
The wildly free jam of “Djibouti” turned into “Glory Chords” and the clout of the Fillmore run continued to rise with the energy inside the venue. Since debuting in 2004, “Glory Chords” averaged one performance every couple of years, but in 2019 it has taken on a new life with four of 21 plays. That finally segued into another rowdy bluegrass-tinged tune the band wrote about Elvis and Johnny Cash.
They appeased the country crowd with “Bumpin’ Reel”. Kang showed off his fierce fiddle skills over the top of the song before things slowed down and Moseley took the vocals on a cover of “Sympathy For The Devil.” Following the bulk of the song, the next 25 minutes were dedicated to a free-flowing jam and a transition to a treasured opus: “Shine”.
The band encored with a two-song selection. The bluegrass classic “Whiskey River” (a song they’ve busted out only five times prior since 2004) and the Kyle Hollingsworth psychedelia-tinged adventurer’s anthem “Let’s Go Outside,” a perfect gesture to ask the audience to leave.
Fans of the String Cheese Incident, and jam bands in general, often record shows for re-listening later. It’s kind of a defining feature of the genre. But one thing that makes the Fillmore so special is that they rarely allow recordings to be made. When they have, it’s often for official releases (see the most recent Wood Brothers‘ album and moe.‘s 2016 release). Not only were no fan recordings allowed, but — contrary to Fillmore tradition — there was no commemorative poster commissioned for these shows, either. With any luck, a recording will emerge, but for now, the shows exist as an anomaly — almost a legend.