The String Cheese Incident

On the Road: 04-09-02 Tulsa, OK

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From the opening bars of "Shine," on this Tulsa date, String Cheese Incident seem instinctively to know what it is their assembled audience craves. The vibes begin easy, carefree, with light rhythms and structured songs full of exhortations to living well and righteously. This sounds boring, doesn't it? Hardly; there should be more bands that are as virtuostic as to be able to take in an audience's collected psyche and design a show for them. Let's state it here for the record once and for all: Almost no one does that, certainly not the jam bands to which String Cheese Incident has rightfully been linked with -- Phish, Widespread Panic, Samples, and even the Grateful Dead at their best. All of these bands come out of the gate with their own agenda in mind, looking to put certain tunes across over the course of an evening or pulling them out of a hat based on what is being dictated by what is happening on stage. String Cheese is different, and the proof in that is on these 19 releases taken from their April 2002 tour: This band contours their shows to nearly spiritual vibes picked up by bandmembers from the crowd. Sets are never entirely duplicated, and tunes can be turned around in arrangement, tempo, and accent to fit the needs of whatever it is that comes up. Here as "Shine" begins a simple little Caribbean-flavored rock song, it becomes a rhythmic dynamo, where hand drums float in counterpoint to Bill Nershi's guitar-playing and a muted yet spectrally intense bassline. And while the engagement with the vibe is flowing like water from a Rocky Mountain stream, what's actually happening on the stage is the creation of new directions -- for the band and audience -- in music. From here, the band winds their way magically through the funk-rock of "Down the Line," a knockout nine-minute version of the "Orange Blossom Special," "Ten Miles to Tulsa," and their classic jam piece, "Rhum 'N' Zouk." The interplay between the front-line players, Nershi, and keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth is uncanny, completely instinctual not only improvisationally and compositionally, but dynamically, thanks to a rhythm section of Michael Travis on drums and Keith Moseley on bass. All of these layers are topped with the glorious fiddle and mandolin work of Michael Kang. On the second set, "Sweet Melinda" gives way, after 18 minutes, to "Climb" for 13 mind-bending ones before a recorded spoken intro and "'Round the Wheel" comes kicking through the center of the vibe to inflict its harmonic complexities and overtones upon the listener. The set-closing "Howard" and the stunningly pastoral "Drifting" follow. The final disc begins quickly with the country swing of "Another Night" before mutating into the riff-oriented funkiness of "Born On The Wrong Planet. The middle section where the jam happens is a showcase for Moseley and Hollingsworth to make it dirty and cosmic -- and they do. "Under African Skies," a healthy diversion into African folk music as it meets American pop melts into the "Okie Skies Jam" before slipping through "Best Feeling," where Nershi reveals why he is the most versatile guitarist on the jam band scene (why he isn't guesting on everybody's records is a mystery). His lyricism and complex chromatic voicings are mystifying. The set closes a few tunes later with a burning, yet reverential reading of Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues," and takes the crowd over the edge. Hopefully, the listener will agree that Van Zandt's legacy becomes bigger as a result of this innovative, tasteful, and wonderful version of this song. In all, everybody should ask to be taken back to Tulsa, as Bob Wills once sang, in order to relive this glorious gig again.

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