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What Is It About String Cheese?

by chris m.    April 22, 2002


This is a question that has be bugging me for awhile. I'm a definite, true String Cheese Incident fan. Who are the String Cheese Incident, you might ask? The Cheese are a band, some would say, "The Band," from Boulder Colorado. They play a mix of funk, trance and bluegrass, blended with African rythm and a little bit of everything else. They are very talented musicians who bring a crowd of people with them from venue to venue as they travel on tour. They are a "jam band," to use that generic term.

What is a "Jam Band?" Well, the Grateful Dead are probably the ultimate jam band to many folks, but musicians like this have been around for a long time, especially during the mid to late sixties, when bands would get on stage and jam on their songs, inviting other people up with them to experience the music. Jam bands are making a return to popularity -- in the past few years I've seen more and more about bands like these. Perhaps it's just getting deeper into the culture and exploring other music routes. So be it. Bands like the String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, Leftover Salmon, moe, The Motet, Galactic, and more -- they get up on stage, play for two solid hours, take a set break, come back and play for two more hours, and then they come back on for an encore. For me, the first time I saw it, I was amazed. I recently went to a Concrete Blonde concert and quickly realized how spoiled by jam bands I was. Blonde got on stage, played a bunch of songs that were identical to the album cuts, and then ended by 11:00 o'clock. This was weird to me, because, when I go to a Cheese concert, I don't leave until 2 or 3 am.

So what is it about the Cheese, in particular, that is so drawing? I've seen people introduced to the band, people who have good jobs, nice lives -- the works -- who suddenly can not get enough of the band, and will follow them from town to town for weeks, going to shows almost every night to see the band. And, if I had the money, I would do the same thing. Why are people drawn to the band and their music?

I guess first of all is the music itself. The music is tight, very tight -- these guys listen to each other and play and bounce off each other so much that it is shear joy to listen to them play. I've heard other bands who will move from one song to another, say from a bluegrass jam to a trance groove, that will wind up in a train wreck. The Cheese manage to do this seemlessly every single time. I've only been to about 11 shows but I have quite a few more on CD, and every show is a joy to listen to them perform.

Second would have to be the scene. The scene at these shows is very "kind." I've heard many people who go to other jam bands say this. I haven't been to a lot of other jam band shows, so I can't say from personal experience, but I've noticed how good the atmosphere can be at a Cheese Concert. At the Hornings Hideout shows last summer, I just walked around, along with so many other people, just smiling. You could attribute some of that to Substances (pot, X, alcohol), but people would just start smiling as soon as the band started playing -- it was very strange the first time I saw it happen. The scene has gotten a little harsher in the past couple years, but that happpens because everyone wants to get into a good thing and brings their bagage along with them. At New Year's in San Francisco this year I noticed a difference, but it still wasn't what I would classify as harsh. I walked around the Bill Graham Civic Center with 8,000 other people and when I looked at people, they would smile at me, not frown or look away.

Maybe it all has to do with a striving for this intangible sense of belonging into a community. This pop culture belief may be that music, and following a band, can bring this about. "The rhythm of the road holds the answers to the question of our mind."

I don't know. I know that, after every show, I say it's going to be the last, because I notice changes that I don't like. Because the venues keep getting bigger, and watching a band with 2,000 people is very different from watching them with 8,000 people. But after I say that, I still long for that next show, the next tour, the next place I can go and see the Cheese play. I'm going to the Gorge Ampitheatre to see them play on May 25th. And maybe I'll be going to Red Rocks in July to see them play again. And, after that, who knows?


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