Saturday July 14th was full of firsts. It was the first show back in the Bay Area for The String Cheese Incident since 2007, my first time at the Greek Theater in Berkeley,Calif., and most importantly my first ever incident. Driving west across the great golden state of California I could not stop the anxious feeling in my gut as I began to feel the cool ocean breeze replacing the hot dry air of the central valley. Arriving in Berkeley a few things became apparent immediately. First of all, the Greek Theater is a beautifully unique venue unlike any other I had ever visited. Secondly, all the stories I had heard about Cheese’s following were false. These fans are not just die-hard followers of a band who dressed in wild costumes, they are a family who all knew each other on a first name basis, who come from all walks of life and share one common passion, the music of The String Cheese Incident.
After becoming instantaneously immersed in this family of “Cheesers” I was even more excited than before to check out this band I had heard so much about for so many years. Upon entering the venue the relaxed atmosphere gave the place a festival vibe as security was almost nonexistent and smiles spread so far and wide they were even seen on the faces of the event staff. Many people I met had been following Cheese since their summer tour commenced at the Hangout Music Festival inGulf Shores,AL. Many others had come straight from Northern California’s beautiful mountains, site of the High Sierra Music Festival that had sold out for the first time in its 22-year history. Either way, as the diverse crowd of old-time Cheese fans, families, and young tour rats filled the venue there was certainly a buzz in the air.
As the band took the stage and the opening notes of “Little Hands” lifted into the evening air my first String Cheese experience began. The slowly paced opener built into a fiery jam with excellent work by Michael Kang on the violin. Landing in a psychedelic field it was apparent that the band was wasting no time venturing into improvisational territory. A Bali-esqe style ending to the jam lead the band into “Dudley’s Kitchen.” The bluegrassy tune had the crowd moving for the first time in what would become a night laced with dance grooves. Following “Dudley’s Kitchen” Keith Moseley let the audiences know that it was “mighty fine to be back in the bay.”
Feeling the Bay Area love, the band fell into “Eye Know Why.” Laying down the first of many funky grooves, Kyle Hollingsworth seemed to come alive during the short trancey jam. Song in My Head followed suit as more and more people began filling the amazing venue. These Waves followed shortly, which led the band into improvisational territory once again. The melodic tone of the song highlighted the nearby ocean and its unmistakable scent as the sun began to set behind the stage.
Cruising around the venue to different vantage points I was again taken aback by the crowd; little kids dancing on the lawn covered in rainbow face paint, people exchanging stories from tour thus far, and by the amount of devotion seen in the costumes.
Looking down at the crowd from the top of the venue I watched people sway to the eloquent jam led by Kyle and his organ as blow up flamingos and brightly colored balloons filled the air. These Waves segued nicely into “Can’t Wait Another Day.” The new song seemed to be received well by the audience and included a well-played prog-rock jam.
Turning up the tempo with “Black Clouds” the band seemed to be enjoying themselves on stage, constantly making eye contact with familiar faces in the crowed and smiling right along with them. In a complete 180 degree segue the band brought out Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads and blasted into “Life During Wartime.” As the lights spread across the stage and into the fresh darkness, the dance party was officially on. Harrison ripped through a unique organ solo as the crowd danced like crazy across the entire theater. Kang had his turn in the fun with a blistering solo of his own that ended the song and the first set.
As the band took a break backstage, the venue continued to fill to capacity. I ran into many old friends I never expected to see and met many new ones. Slowly I began to feel more and more apart of this crazy circus-like family of Cheese fans. After an unusually long set break the band opened the second set wide open with It Is What It Is.” Led by the solid percussive work of Jason Hann and Michael Travis, the band entered blissful territory that was then engulfed by Kang’s powerful sound.
Following the impressive opener, Jerry Harrison came back out for an energized version of “Rosie.” The all-out disco attack had the entire venue dancing like mad as Harrison and Hollingsworth traded outstanding solos on the keys. Hann got in on the action as the song broke down with Moseley keeping the groove going until the band found the song’s ending. Bill dropped the opening notes of “Miss Brown’s Teahouse” and the dance party continued.
Landing in “Black Market,” Michael Travis and Keith laid the ground work for the rest of the jam, as Kyle established more funk-laced keys. Moving out of a solid jam, the band transitioned smoothly into “On The Road.” The underlying disco theme propelled the band into impressive improvisational territory once again. After remarkable work by Kang, the band wrapped things up and took a short and well deserved breather before dropping into Sirens. A straightforward version of the song brought Jerry Harrison back out on stage one last time. This time Harrison carried a guitar and mumbled something about playing at the Greek in the 70’s and proceeded to play “She Cracked.” The out-of-place “proto-punk” tune stood out like a sore thumb in the dance heavy second set. However, despite his weathered voice, Harrison was able to deliver a rockin’ version of the old Modern Lovers tune.
After some confusion on the faces of both the band and the crowd, the opening notes of “Shine” got a huge reaction from the audience. The blissful tune carried the crowd off into the cool California night. Led by Hann’s remarkable percussion, the jam quickly took shape. Slowly building from the depths, the band demonstrated their talent as a unit in this extraordinarily cohesive jam. “Rivertrance” quickly followed and had the theater moving once again. The percussive heavy and Bali style tune caught everyone’s attention as the band tore into yet another impressive piece of improv. The trancey keys presented by Kyle led the band far into the abyss as the energy of the song continued to grow. Kang’s outstanding violin led the way as the band turned on a dime and the tempo doubled. Tearing through the jam with precision, Kang blew up the Greek Theater in an outstanding ending to a great second set.
With a few minutes to spare before a strict curfew, the band walked back on stage to cover Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” The entertaining cover was a fun way to end my first experience with this amazingly charismatic band. While it was surely far from String Cheese’s finest incidents, it was an eye-opening experience to the world of the band and the tight-knit family that follows.
Let’s all keep riding the wave!