Album Review

The String Cheese Incident

Rhythm of the Road: Volume 2, Live In Las Vegas

for The Lot Scene by Parker

Band Members:  Kyle Hollingsworth - piano, organ, and accordion; Michael Kang - acoustic/electric mandolin, electric guitar, and fiddle; Keith Moseley - bass guitar; Bill Nershi - acoustic guitar, lap steel guitar, and electric slide guitar; Michael Travis - drums and percussion

About Rhythm of the Road: Volume 2, Live In Las Vegas

“The String Cheese Incident were in the middle of their 2001 coast-to-coast summer tour when they pulled into Las Vegas for the band’s first ever, “Sin City Incidents.” Touring in support of the band’s new studio album “Outside Inside,” and a couple days after the live Austin City Limits TV taping, the band settled into the Aladdin Theatre in July 2001 for two incredible late-night Incidents. Rhythm of the Road: Volume 2, Live In Las Vegas features the best moments of that two night run and includes fan favorites such as “San José” and “Howard,” as well as rare bust-outs like “SKAT” and more. The audio has been completely re-mixed and re-mastered, creating a listening experience that all SCI fans will enjoy.”

     I begin my review with a question - what is one of the very best things out there?  Why String Cheese live, of course!  What’s the very next best thing?  If you said “a three-disc live album” then you are so correct!  I’ve long been a fan of the band and have gratefully made it to my share of shows, but, as is so commonplace in our community and culture, one simply cannot make it to every one.  Enter the glory of the live album release.  With recording technology being what it is these days, these album-based show experiences can be so wonderful and so intimate all in the privacy of your own space.  And some extremely fine Cheese at home should always be welcome, no?  I wasn’t able to make it to Vegas in 2001, but I often hear those shows brought up and discussed with reverence by those who were lucky enough to be there in person all those years back; having the band make them available now is a most welcome gift to remainder of us.   Familiarizing myself with the three discs, listening through it became apparent pretty quickly just how superb these shows were, how many special moments they produced, and just how illustrative they were of String Cheese’s unique sound and style.  I’d like to share my thoughts on all of it now — we have lots of music to get to my friends!!

     Disc One begins with “San José” featuring some fine and rich harmonies to accompany the instant bright and ‘tropical’ feeling, a sub-genre into which Cheese often dips.  Replete with an enormous crowd participation element, clearly the intentionally happy vibes are a perfect choice to get things going.  More classic SCI, the solo work from various members of the band is exquisite:  Kyle’s sprightly keyboard work filled with hundreds of notes, Nershi’s acoustic solo epitomizing the aforementioned happy vibes that permeate this song, and finally Kang’s electric mando solo that brings home once and for good that clarion call String Cheese sound, all textures and timbres firing at full force, rocketing out to the ears of this brand new home audience.  And that is just the first selection.  An absolute monster of a “Got What He Wanted” comes next on the album listing.  And when I say ‘monster’ I mean ‘monster’ as in 22:00 long!  And trust me, they fill every minute with your good ol’ fashioned blue ribbon nasty goodness.  From the well-orchestrated lines of the piano and electric mando intro to the mind bending central jam this has to be one of the best versions of this song I’ve heard.  The round robin between keys and strings during the long and juicy jam so very typifies SCI’s playing with great amounts of superlative Kang and Nershi work on their respective instruments.  The fun and funky instrumental “Freedom Jazz Dance” (which will most certainly make you want to dance so, you know, be prepared) is next followed by a little bluegrass with Keith Moseley up to the mic for “Why You Been Gone So Long” showcasing a bit of Kyle’s skills on the keys in the middle.  And, from the crowd reaction, they’d been wanting a little bluegrass.  The String Cheese Incident:  never ones to disappoint.  Afterwards, Travis leads things off with a building percussion intro into “Cedar Laurels”, the next track on the album.  This opens up into a solo from Kang, both on electric and vocals over the top of a driving bass and percussion line and a thick texture from the entire band.  At one point Kang grabs his fiddle and, together with the drums section, jumps into an almost reel feeling and then into a spectacular solo following.  An incredible ride that runs headlong into a huge ending.  “Sittin’ On Top of the World” brings us back to the world of bluegrass — hard drivin’, fast pickin’ and plenty of it.  Billy opens things up early with some ridiculously quick acoustic guitar work and the band follows suit throughout taking his cue and running with it all the way to the end.  Excellence in grass.  Wonderful.  The rare instrumental “SKAT” pops up next on the roster, a bouncy, trippy, mellow selection with a fiddle lead from Kang and some groovy effects throughout.  Another good dance tune, but this time on the chill and relaxed side of things.  Finally, our disc closes with a robust and rowdy version of “Black and White” with Karl Denson (saxophone) and some of his Tiny Universe muscle, Andy Cleaves (trumpet), guesting in.  Talk about your sonic texture!  I always love the phenomenon wherein a band whose sound you already dig so much gets augmented by another amazing band (or portion of) and the subsequent sounds become something so perfectly tied to that moment, that one opportunity to collaborate and make something beautiful that much better.  And that Karl D. solo?  My goodness…I do believe I am getting the vapors!  Wow.  Certainly a great way to wrap up the first disc of this set.  Yes, that’s right.  We have two more full discs to go, my friends.  And just wait until you hear them!!

     Disc Two opens with some disco.  Yup.  Disco.  And why not?  Taking full advantage of Karl Denson and his horns, the SCI boys bust out with a big ol’ version of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight”.  Not only a chance for String Cheese to funk out, but another chance for us all to get a tasty Karl D. sax solo all up in our business.  One of the highlights of this gem of a cover to be sure.  And those horns…my goodness, those horns.  There are no doubts in my mind that everyone present at this show “got down [that] night”.  Next up is why we see a five-track Disc Two:  the beginning of the long songs.  Cheese really jammed out these shows apparently if you go by track length.  A couple of selections are 15 minutes plus with one topping the 20 minute mark…on this disc alone.  But that is one of the myriad reasons we love this music, no?  The 15:00+ “Howard” rock adventure is quick and twisty and hurdles like an interstellar transport.  Lots to take in — like the very long and trippy jam that occupies the mid section of the song.  Kyle on synthesizer and Kang on his ax lead into some supremely funky Nershi licks.  Never minding Kyle’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” teases.  A pretty magical ride all told.  Weird, but magical.  But, you know, that best kind of weird.  String Cheese weird.  And when you get so much sweet, sweet Michael Kang solo at the same time?  Well then, you lucky devil.  “Howard”.  Always a bouncy good time and this is no exception.  The relaxed, intense lower-spectrum energy “Windy Mountain” follows, a Nershi-led number on both acoustic guitar and vocals.  And then it is time for the 20:52 “Turn this Around” that kind of dominates this disc.  A slowly building percussion part leads us up and into the high energy jam rock riffs and strains that give way to the piece proper, an explosion of sound and then right into the song, lyrics care of Mr. Kang.  And some pretty incredible lyrics, too.  I particularly like the chorus:  “See if we can turn this around, maybe some other way. Take this to a higher ground, maybe some other day.  Maybe you're afraid to see, baby you're enough for me.  Maybe you're afraid to try, you always sit there asking why.”  Yet another reason those of who do love this band so much.  Stellar songwriting.  You’re also going to get a very lengthy and very mellow jam in the center section of this one.  Powerful and pretty even while staying relaxed.  Not many bands can accomplish that feeling.  SCI most certainly can.  And does.  But you’ll hear soon, my friends.  To close out the second disc, Cheese chose a quick-paced acoustic bluegrass instrumental.  “Daryl” features Kang on fiddle and Nershi on acoustic guitar both of whom display those incredible skills for which they are well-known.  Kyle gets some notes of his own in as well as this nice little freight train speeds along towards it end.  And towards the end of the disc.  A disc small on tracks but incredibly large on the music front.  Not a bad ride, eh?  I just hope you’ve got some left in you, because we have yet another disc to dance to.  You ready?  Let’s dive in shall we?

     Bounding right into things, Disc Three kicks off with Nershi on the mic for the upbeat feeling“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”.  A very nice howl from the crowd around a third of the way through seems to be the perfect reflection on this song as it motors along, no doubt bringing smiles to the faces of those gathered in Vegas as it will to those who listen to this album.  Some really wonderful organ skills from Kyle on display here, too — I must admit I do love that sound so much in my music.  A continuation of that earlier upbeat feeling, the ending percussion and guitar combo is a hypnotic turn right into the following “Desert Passage Jam”.  Kang busts out a fun tease early on, Steve Miller’s “Swingtown”, this all leading into the next part of the jam proper.  A fast-paced breakdown it surely must have kept everyone dancing their feet off right up until the next song, “Come As You Are”.  A familiar favorite to those at the show and those at home combined, this proves a particularly fine version of this song.  And weighing in at 15:48, it is a very healthy musical serving as well.  All the better for us, no?  Everyone in good voice and excelling as always instrumentally, the quick clip of the percussion and the well-known piano notes bringing the song together in a well-arranged package, this one is a joy to listen to, to be sure.  Like the super groovy middle jam part, for instance.  Fast-paced, lengthy, driving, kind of trippy.  You know, the things one looks for in a groovy middle jam.  The mellower “Let It Go” comes next with Kyle who remains on vocals and who dedicates the song to a pair of newlyweds in the front row.  Nothing but class.  Love this band.  And then it is nothing but funk and a bit of freak — “Dirk” is another Kyle-led selection that is big on both.  This song is characterized by its long and supremely funky central jam.  From member to member, the showcase moves from instrument to instrument, talent and skill on display for all to hear.  The jam gets really rock and roll towards the end working towards a huge overall finish.  So much energy.  So much release.  Truly incredible.  Now a crowd favorite anyone?  How about some “Mouna Bowa” in your life?  From the sounds of the reactions on the disc, the audience in 2001 sure was happy to hear this one coming down from the stage.  Kang’s familiar fiddle strains sound studio album perfect and Nershi’s acoustic rings out like an old friend.  Definitely a dance tune, no doubts there.  And, continuing that dancing theme, they slammed “Mouna” straight into the next selection:  “Aladdin Jam”, another instrumental in honor of their desert venue shows.  And at the final end of our three disc journey together we find ourselves arriving at a “Shantytown”.  Because, why not mix just a dash of reggae with your Cheese, right?  A great recipe for a perfect way to end a show and wrap up a disc.  Bill Nershi takes the lead for this last one, crooning the lyrics away in only the way that he can.  There’s definitely some excitement in the middle as the tempo is taken away by Travis with the rest of the band following suit.  The feeling definitely morphs right inside your ears from that earlier reggae feel right to that classic SCI rock sound and feeling that we all love so much.  Much like with a String Cheese show, as the last notes ring out from the speakers you are instantly left with a feeling of wanting more.  Lots more.  And now, if you please, thank you very much.  But, sadly, that is the end of the third disc.  Don’t fret, however, because you can always listen to them over again.  Right?  Right.

     And that is how things went down in Las Vegas in 2001 and how they were laid down on disc for you and me to enjoy.  As I said before, the next best thing to being there is having it come to you, which is precisely how this album makes you feel.  There is no doubting how strong and joyous these shows were as made obvious simply by taking a listen to these discs.  I am very grateful for their release and hope this inspires a trend of more SCI live show releases in the future.  I hope you truly enjoy your listen through Rhythm of the Road: Volume 2, Live In Las Vegas when you get your chance.   And I hope you dance and holler and howl and come alive to those singular sounds of The String Cheese Incident!  Thank you for reading, my friend.