March madness is upon us! I’m not referring to basketball, I’m talking about the String Cheese Incident Spring Tour that wound its way through Oakland with a 2 night run at the famed Fox Theater, on March 11th and 12th. The barefoot boys brought their A game west, starting the tour in Reno the previous night after a few months off since their New Year’s run in Broomfield Colorado.
Perhaps Reno served as a warm up because they sure hit the stage running on Friday night! Billy came on stage and gave us a big leap before picking up his custom Santa Cruz guitar (designed after the Martin guitar he played in the early days) and picking off the first few notes of “Bollymunster,” a Middle Eastern flavored fiddle tune guaranteed to get your blood pumping and ass shaking. Which begs the question: Does the String Cheese Incident play Bluegrass? Rock? EDM? Who cares? It is dance music, pure and simple. No matter the flavor, the end result is the same. Their songs are fuel for dance and the band is the engine. Firing on all cylinders from the get-go, we all knew we were in for a treat! Next up was “Got What He Wanted>MLT”, a tasty gozinta of old school tunes delighting old school fans and their younger counterparts that are embracing the scene with as much vigor as many of us did back in the days of the Grateful Dead. Dance we must and dance we did to Michael Kang’s dripping latin mandolin riffs and Jason Hann’s thundering conga drums. The rest of the set contained an even mix of older and newer rock and country tunes, and the dance party continued. In the mix was “Sweet Spot,” featuring Keith Mosley, AKA “The Moose,” on vocals. His baritone voice and solid bass lines chug the song along like a faithful locomotive, its light casting shadows in the nooks and crannies of our collective minds, blown wide open…and I have to remind myself…it’s only the first set!!! They wrapped up the set with “Can’t Wait Another Day” and round and round we go, high-fiving and hugging friends and strange dance partners we now know so well, simply from an hour or so of bearing our souls on the dance floor.
The second set kicked off with San Francisco Bay Area’s guitar darling Dan Lebowitz (Animal Liberation Orchestra/ALO) standing in for a couple of tunes. First up was Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” and Lebo did not disappoint. I haven’t seen Michael or Billy smile so much while picking in quite some time. The camaraderie and showmanship on the stage shone through as we were awarded with some of the best reggae music I have heard live in quite some time. Lebo’s guitar growled while Billy’s groaned and the stage was set for a smoking “Let’s Go Outside,” featuring Kyle Hollingsworth trading tasty licks with Lebo while Michael and Billy ran musical figure eights around the stage, intertwining with the drums and synthesizers. After some fierce jamming, Lebo left the stage and we were gifted a heavily jammed out “Black Clouds” that I don’t recall them finishing, as well as a rocking “Way Back Home”. The highlight of the show for me was set closer, “Valley of the Jig”, an Irish -inspired tune featuring Kang on fiddle. EDM styled backbeats are provided by residential psychonaut Jason Hann while Michael Travis’ unwavering grasp of rhythm keeps it in check, offering space for the rest of the boys to add technicolor and texture to the electrifying grooves. As the boys left the stage the crowd erupted in appreciation and kept up the noise until the boys returned for perhaps the most rockin’ encore I have seen them play in the 18 or so years I’ve been seeing them live. The “Outside/Inside” was insane, all of them playing like their lives depended on it. But, the highlight was the following song, a cover of U2”s “Mysterious Ways.” Michael Kang dug deep and just kept digging and digging, getting dirtier and dirtier by the minute. Billy joined in and the black hole got so big and so deep, the whole band fell in!
The following night, Jack “Diamond” Mento, an old friend and advisor of the band, came out to introduce the band with a nod to fellow fan Evan Kimble, The Cosmic Love Freak who passed away unexpectedly earlier in the year. He was a familiar face on the rail and his presence will be sorely missed by both the fans he called family and the band that brought him and so many of us such joy! Jack reminded us, even through the pain, to dance until the music is over.
Comparatively speaking, one could say the first night was a more new school vibe and night two harkened back to the bluegrass roots of the band, but either way you slice it, they Are a dance band, remember? And again, dance we did. The first set began with us all “Colliding” because we were “Born on the Wrong Planet.” As the band tore into BOTWP, I was reminded of my first show at the Strawberry Music Festival in the Fall of 1998 and how I instantly fell in love with the band. SCI filled a musical hole that was tore open when Jerry Garcia passed away three years prior and now,18 years later, they continue to fill my heart and body with unparalleled happiness. That happiness spread over me like a warm blanket as the notes poured into my eager ears. BOTWP spilled into a funkfest with a cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” into “Can’t Stop Now.” By now I was out of the photo pit and on the rail on the second tier, eye level with the band and dancing like a madman. Then Billy brought it down for a spell and hypnotized us with beautiful rendition of “Windy Mountain” before Kang took up to new heights with a soaring version of “These Waves,” as images of waves and surf danced on the screens behind the drummers. Michael Kang’s mandolin was sending out serious waves and we collectively rode them to the shore, toes over and all. The set closed with crowd favorite, “Round the Wheel” which will always bring me back to NYE 2000 in Portland. Those were the days. These ARE the days!
After allowing us some time to regroup and put ourselves back together a bit, the band hit the stage for the second set and proceeded to blow our minds with a trippy “It Is What It Is.” They turned that jam over and over and over again, bringing it just a bit higher each time before they reached the crescendo. And, the crowd went nuts, releasing any pent up energy along with the band, and the whole place lit up with the light of a few hundred laughing souls. This is why we come back night after night. It can’t be explained but once you feel it, you know. You know? Next was “Stop Drop and Roll,” a song that hasn’t been in rotation for that long, kicking off another dance fest – and Jason Hann was dancing with his drums as much as we were dancing with each other. I love watching Hann when he is feeling it, his smile is so big you think it’s gonna gobble up the world! Next we went back to the roots for a rocking and rollin’ rendition of “Rhythm of the Road” followed by my favorite instrumental, “Rivertrance”. Michael Kang just kills me every time with this one. While my favorite ‘Trance’ will always be my first (02/05/2000) this was no slouch. Taught to the band by bluegrass fiddle great Darol Anger, the song has evolved throughout the years, just as the band has, and today’s versions are very different than the early “Rivertrances.” This evolution is not only expected but welcomed as the song still serves the same purpose, to make you dance. And dance we did. Hard. Kang’s fiddle bounced around the majestic room, playing off the intricate tile work on the ceiling, to then being captured by the Egyptian statues flanking the stage. The room came to life and the walls rejoiced with the vibrations of string. For one moment in time, all was perfect in the world. After the weirdness subdued, we were treated to a rollicking version of “Jellyfish.” Keith laid down a heavy backbeat while Billy, in not-so-rare-these-days form, hammed it up for the crowd with a bit of running in place and some silly improv on the microphone. This led into “Sirens,” fully equipped with a Hann rap and a slinky reggae beat. I’m not sure what hard rock and reggae have in common but lines were crossed and genres blurred…providing music as eclectic as the crowd it runs with. The show was nearly over and the band had time for “Just One Story” before ending an epic fourth set in Oakland. Before the band came back on for encore, I remembered that they hadn’t finished “Black Clouds” from the night before. Alas, we were treated to “Barstool,” by far my favorite Bill Nershi song. Sandstone nights and birthday fights…but I digress. They wrapped up the evening with a heartfelt “Don’t Let Go,” an old ’50s tune made popular by Roy Hamilton (1958) and one most of us got to know thanks to The Jerry Garcia Band. This one was sung by the Moose himself. While this room doesn’t have the rich history of The Warfield Theater across the Bay, The Fox Theater is currently creating that magic and history; and, I know of someone who would have loved this room and would also have loved this band, if he had the chance to see them play.
The band is currently finishing a swing through Southern California and will be wrapping up Spring Tour in Las Vegas with a three night run beginning on March 18th. They will be back in June starting at the Electric Forest Festival in Rothbury, Michigan.
Thank you String Cheese family, thank you for a real good time!