Black clouds rollin’ up the valley, Black Clouds coverin’ up the sun.
The weather may have brought a wintery storm to Oregon, but the String Cheese Incident did everything in their power to heat things up with songs and styles that spanned decades of creativity. After 25 years, they still have some tricks up their sleeves, and had them all on display over the course of their run at the Cuthbert Amphitheater in Eugene, Oregon September 26-28.
S.C.I. has spent a good portion of the last quarter century adding and blending musical genres to their repertoire. While these long-time musical collaborators originally coalesced around bouncing bluegrass, over the course of the three shows, they delved into deep and dark rock and roll, experimented with some sonic psychedelic exploration, mixed world beat, Irish Jigs, and Indian inspired melodies, while also incorporating some funk grooves and electronic soundscapes. The range of styles really show just how far this band’s sound has evolved over time.
Throughout 2019, The String Cheese Incident has been on tour around the country celebrating their 25th anniversary by making a point to travel to many of their old stomping grounds. Oregon has always had a special place in the evolution of the S.C.I. phenomenon. This state has hosted iconic 1999 and 2000 New Year’s concerts, many legendary Horning’s Hideout summer festivals, as well as other special runs at the Cuthbert. The stage is covered with a copper colored metallic halo that surrounds the stage. Around the halo, towering trees remind fans they are indeed in Oregon. Andy Cass, SCI’s lighting director, lit up the trees, creating an organic canvass for the lights behind the band.
No review of this weekend would be complete without some ink on the obscene weather conditions. These shows were not for the faint of heart. Each night seemed to have its own unique weather system. All three nights were cold. The first set of the first night was dry with intermittent light drizzling for most of the show. However, by second set, the drizzle had intensified, leaving fans drenched by the end of the second set. Despite the intense pouring all afternoon on Saturday, the second night was dry for most of the show. For the final show on Sunday, the weather alternated between heavy rain and dry spells. But it really started coming down during the set break and the middle of the second set.
The band recognized our plight throughout the weekend and joked on many occasions about how we were “troopers”. They seemed to be genuinely appreciative of our collective dedication, and they played like it.
Friday the 27th saw a wet and wild show. The soulful “Get to You”, one of many new tracks from S.C.I.’s Sound Lab, kicked off the weekend. The entire S.C.I. Sound Lab project is a musically freeing opportunity for the band to experiment with new sounds and collaborate with friends. They use their recording studio to create and release new music song by song without the pressure of trying to create the perfect album. These songs are open and experimental, and the range of styles is vast. For fans, it really is one of the cooler developments in the world of S.C.I. over the last few years.
An old school pairing of “On the Road” and “Search” seemed to get the set off and running. There was even a little early show “Drums” segment, between the two songs. The first set also had some head-scratching surprises, especially when they played a portion of SuperTramp’s “Breakfast in America” in the middle of “Falling Through the Cracks”.
The true highlight of the first set was easily the “Galactic”, which was a patient 16 minute-plus slow boiling groove. When they started singing the lyrics (which haven’t been played since 2017) over the instrumental structure of the song, we collectively reached liftoff. This smoothly transitioned into the classic Bob Marley Reggae standard, “Bend Down Low” which contained its own unique jam.
Prior to the launch of the second set of the classic bluegrass tune “Blackberry Blossom”, Bill Nershi took the time to relay to the audience how it was one of the first bluegrass songs they ever jammed on, and that it was great to be celebrating the band’s 25th anniversary with all of us. Michael Kang followed that by leading us through Keller WIlliams’s “Best Feeling”, which took the second slot of the set and was an absolute monster. It clocked in over 20 minutes long, was the longest jam of the weekend and got deep into the funk.
“Outside and Inside” was the turning point of the set in both the jam and the weather. The rain had been manageable throughout the night, as we balanced the coats on, coats off rotation. But the deluge came down during “Outside and Inside”, and it was clear that we were without any doubt “Outside”. This was an exploratory and psychedelic jam that was followed by a Keith Mosley led cover of Peter Rowen’s “Sweet Melinda” that was a soaring powerhouse.
The weather on Saturday the 28 was inverted from the first. Heavy pounding rain came before the show, and just a tiny gentle mist during, but the bitter cold had set in.
It may have been colder outside, but the String Cheese Incident was on fire from the start. They opened up with “Manga”, an upbeat instrumental song they debuted last year through the Sound Lab and was inspired by a Cameroonian Bass player Andre Manga.
Things started pushing the musical boundaries into the weird quadrant pretty early in the show with the “Got What He Wanted>”Will it Go Round in Circles”>”Got What He Wanted” sandwich, which was both fun and exploratory.
Soon after that delicious musical sandwich, the social justice-inspired “Black and White” hit home. As the song always does, the funk led to an almost gospel revival dance party and Michael Kang and Kyle Hollingsworth were impressive in this version. The set closed with One Step Closer, the title track from their 2005 album of the same name.
The second set was an absolute masterpiece. Lyrically and musically, this set seemed to be built for the Oregon setting. The set opener “Vertigo” has an aged Cheese vibe, but was actually written by Bill and Jill Nershi a few years ago, and acted as a strong start to the set.
The “Black Clouds”>”Close Your Eyes” that followed was an incredible one/two punch. Although they never finished the Black Clouds (I guess the clouds never did stop rolling up the valley) they flowed through these two tunes effortlessly, and eventually reached a screaming tension and release peak in “Close Your Eyes”, that absolutely nailed the landing.
Following that musical heat, “Catfish John” made famous by Jerry Garcia and Old and In the Way, gave us all a collective breather. It was a perfect moment of musical calm in the eye of the sonic storm. With forests, streams, rivers and lakes surrounding the venue, the music seemed to fit the scene perfectly.
What followed was a 3 song adventure that was probably the musical highlight of the weekend. Each of these songs have vastly different styles, and showcased much of the musical versatility of The String Cheese Incident. The Irish Jig meets techno groove sound of “Valley of the Jig” was hot, especially when Michael Kang got going on his fiddle. They took that high flying heater and led it into the haunting and psychedelic “Shantytown”, a song born from their incredible experiences in the magic laden woods of the Oregon Country Fair. With a deep part of SCI’s history tied to these forests (Horning’s Hideout, and the Oregon Country Fair in particular), this was another clear nod to the magic of this place. The third piece of this power trio was an upbeat and positively Cheesy “Desert Dawn”, which acts as a perfect example of SCI’s ability to musically tap into the light and joy in their music that they are most known for. Each of these three songs clocked in around 15 minutes, and as a collective took us all on a deep and wide musical adventure. This trio showcased what this band is capable of during any given night.
Keith Mosley’s bouncing “Sweet Spot” was the first encore. Before the second song of the encore, Bill Nershi took a moment to speak to us about the loss of Grateful Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter less than a week prior. Rather than to just have the band play a song in his honor, they wanted us all to sing Hunter’s beautiful and poignant “Ripple” together.
Tears flowed and hugs were shared within the very first few notes of the song. As our voices gained in strength, the memorial feel seemed to turn into a celebration of his life. As they left the stage, Michael Kang and Bill Nershi hugged which made it clear that it was just as special for them.
To begin the closing show on Sunday night, they started with a run of classic bluegrass style songs. Rain and cold were on tap once again, but for the final night of the run, the early start time of 5 pm, would give the show a bit of a different feel.
The bluegrass lovers in the crowd were in for a special treat, as the band spent most of the first set picking in the daylight. They played a wide range of bluegrass standards like “The Hobo Song”,“Jerusalem Ridge” and for the first time in nearly 20 years, Hank Williams’, “Mind Your Own Business”.
They started digging a little deeper and darker into the sound during the mid set “Lonesome Fiddle Blues”. And then “Land’s End” took things for a mid-set cruise, and although the “Glory Chords” may not have fully hit home, it still was quite the ride.
The second set was another showcase of their musical diversity. “Looking Glass” went pretty deep into the spacy improvisation. Songs like “Bollymunster” tapped into the Indian Bollywood music scene, with some Irish jig with electronic flair.
During the “Joyful Sound”>”Rumble” it seemed like as the band got deeper into the transition, the heavens opened upon us with force. Sometimes you just have to dig deep, have fun and dance in the rain!
As the band took their final bow, and disappeared into the night, we exited the venue soaked but satisfied as the PA played the humorous choice Credence Clearwater Revival tune “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” Those black clouds never stopped rolling up the valley, but that didn’t stop us from gorging ourselves on the Cheesy goodness.
All photos by Greg Homolka.