Review: String Cheese Incident – Horning’s Hideout Fest

String Cheese Incident + Friends @ Horning’s Hideout 2012: July 19 -22

Words and Photos: Jason Gershuny

In many ways, a String Cheese Incident festival at Horning’s Hideout is a homecoming for the band and their fans. People come from all over the country, and even the world, to celebrate all things Cheese. Horning’s Hideout may be 1,300 miles from Colorado, but for one weekend a year, it is home to the String Cheese world. Luckily enough for me, I only had to travel 45 minutes from Portland to this wooded retreat full of peacocks, three stages of music, lakes and streams and mossy trees for a four-day journey into musical and multimedia artistic exploration.

The simplest way to sum up these Cheese shows is with one word, consistent. I mean that in the most positive way possible. Ever since S.C.I. took their break in 2007, it seemed somewhat difficult to find a complete run of shows that consistently captured the Cheese magic. This may have been connected to the limited number of shows that they played each year. But with this year’s summer tour more than tripling in length from the previous year’s summer tour (from 4 to 15 gigs), it really seems that the connection between the band, in terms of taking chances during jams, has grown and that their sound and repertoire has evolved.

Thursday always seems to act as the warm-up day for both fans and musicians alike. Although S.C.I. didn’t take the stage this night, there was still plenty of music to see. There were three String Cheese side project bands – Contribution, Kyle Hollingsworth Band and EOTO – that entertained the masses throughout the evening.

The Contribution really started things off, and gave the daytime dancers an inspired Jesse Stone cover of Don’t Let Go that was led by S.C.I.’s Keith Mosley. This was followed by Tim Carbone (from Railroad Earth) leading The Contribution through a fiery rendition of the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. The Kyle Hollingsworth Band seemed to kick it up a notch, with his fluid keyboard styling and the incredible and immovable rhythm section of Garret Sayers and Dave Watts. Kyle’s band really got the dance party started when they launched mid-jam into the Grateful Dead’s Slipknot! >Franklin’s Tower. The party was clearly on.

The musical surprise of the day for me was the Dead Winter Carpenters, whom I have never seen or heard before. Any time a band can effortlessly tap into bluegrass, psychedelic jams, soul singing, percussive afro-beat and can cover hip-hop pioneers Jurassic 5’s Concrete Schoolyard in the same show, they become hard to ignore. EOTO, which features both drummers from SCI, Jason Hann and Michael Travis, closed off the first night with some drum heavy electronica and a mind-bending light show. By night’s end, it was clear there was stylistic balance between all of the first day acts.

Friday’s musical lineup was far and away the best day of music during the festival. Between the funky and just plain nasty grooves of The Motet and Dumpstaphunk, the smooth tropical journey of reggae legend Toots and the Maytals, the late night world beat flow of Hamsa Lila, and the folksy Americana rock of Honkytonk Homeslice, there seemed to be a little something for everyone’s musical taste. One major highlight of the day was when the Motet’s keyboardist extraordinaire Joey Porter sat in with Dumpstaphunk during their deep funk original Meanwhile and tore it up.

After all of the pre-Cheese music had concluded, the audience made their way to the main stage for a full helping of Cheese.

But before the music fully started, there was a secretly planned display of community, love and healing that absolutely blew me away. Sarah Elizabeth Gewald, a beloved member of the String Cheese family, passed away in March. Her husband Chris, who is also deeply involved and loved by the Cheese community, was in attendance at Horning’s Hideout. Without Chris’s knowledge, his friends organized a mass show of unity and support by distributing bright purple shirts that said on the front “Team Gewald,” and on the back had the S.C.I. lyric “ I just want to say I love you, make sure you feel it everyday.” Everyone involved was instructed to keep the shirts out of view until the signal was given. When the band took the stage on Friday night, Keith Mosley gave the signal, and instantly all of the band, the crew and Chris’s friends took off their outer layers to display their “Team Gewald” shirts in a profound demonstration of pure love toward Chris and his angel, Sarah. The sea of purple enveloped Chris in hugs, and it was a beautifully sincere and touching moment in time.

The highlights from Friday’s first Cheese set include an exploratory three-song journey through Water, Pack It Up and then Dumpstaphunk joining Cheese for a spirited and funky trip to N’awlins with Hey Pocky Way. The whole second set on Friday night was pure unrelenting fire and may have been the best set of the weekend. The set opened with the dark, spooky and Oregon woods appropriate opener of Shantytown, followed by the complex composition of Howard. The weaving of both Restless Wind and Lands End throughout the set made it clear that S.C.I. was not looking to play it safe. Watching the intensity and fluidity in which Billy Nershi and Michael Kang intertwined their solos this set made these jams a personal highlight. Jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan joined the Cheese for Freedom Jazz Dance, the encore of Naïve Melody as well as the final plunge into Restless Wind.

Saturday seemed to have a global theme to the music schedule, with bands like Afromassive, Mexican Institute of Sound and The Polish Ambassador. Modern twists were added to traditional sounds from music around the world. One major daytime highlight came from some of Oregon’s finest musicians in the Scott Law Reunion Band. Watching the virtuoso guitarist Scott Law weave his solos in and out of Asher Fulero’s keyboard splendor and Damian Erskines rock-steady basslines, made for a perfect way to enjoy the early afternoon sun in the woods. The Infamous Stringdusters’s brand of speedgrass really got things heated up before Cheese, and got a rousing response to their fun originals as well as their well placed covers of Phish’s Free and The Police’s Walking on the Moon.

Saturday night is always the big blowout of the weekend, where the convergence of music, incredible visual artists, dancers, and pyrotechnic performers create an intricate storyline through enormous props backed by SCI’s soundtrack. This convergence is especially seen at the beginning of the second set. This year’s aquatic-themed procession started with a giant manned pirate ship, fire-dancers, a giant flaming fire dragon, a sea of iridescent jellyfish, a colossal water dragon, a crane that lifted a crow’s nest and pirate high above the crowd, a mermaid caught in the net below the crow’s nest. The apex of the procession, was a giant jellyfish that dwarfed all the other jellyfish still on the dance floor. With all this visual chaos happening, pyrotechnic flames and skyward sparks began rising in rhythm to SCI’s musical accompaniment.

If this seems hard to take in, imagine sitting on the lawn watching in person. It is truly a sight to behold. This set is always an amazing display of the creativity of the greater community. Artists like the Tyler Fuqua Creations (who created the ship, water dragon, and giant jellyfish), all the firedancers and acrobats, prop holders and volunteers who give so much of their time and energy to make this ritual set memorable and over the top each and every year. After nearly 20 minutes of visual and musical inspiration, the fans were welcomed to join all the insanity for a dance party with the props that went deep into the night.

As far as the rest of the Cheese show went, a cover of The Police’s Synchronicity was off the charts as well as the set closer Colorado Bluebird Sky. A cover of Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved finished off the night and left many of those in attendance feeling those positive vibrations. The night was far from over as we were left to frolic late in the evening. The Silent Disco was packed with fully costumed folks dancing till the sun began to reappear. There were even reports of a horde of Yeti running rampant through the forest till dawn.

Sunday’s main attraction leading up to Cheese was a set by Sam Bush’s band. This was the perfect way to spend our Sunday afternoon. His set gave homage to some incredible musicians. He played Doc Watson’s Freight Train Boogie and dedicated The Bands Up On Cripple Creek to the recently passed Levon Helm.

With all that went down, it was tough to imagine that S.C.I. would be able to keep up the consistency through the third show. But the band had a secret in their bag of tricks, which may have made this night the most complete show of the run. Sam Bush was that secret ingredient. His infusion into the group’s jams pushed every song he sat in on to new heights. As far as the Cheese show goes Lonesome Fiddle Blues and Rivertrance really stood out as masterpieces that blended the Cheese jam with Sam’s unique fiddle and mandolin prowess. The Coloradoans laid down some of their own magic without Sam that impressed, such as It Is What It Is, which was played with a fire and finesse that seemed to represent the kind of evolution that SCI is going through right now.

A Horning’s Hideout String Cheese Incident festival should not be missed. Whether you come for the music, community, multimedia artistic displays, gorgeous Oregon forest or just plain unadulterated hi-jinks, there is something that will surely titillate your senses and leave you wanting more.

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