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Robert Ker

Robert Ker is a freelance music writer in Portland, where he and his wife own the vintage store Find. Contact him at: Twitter: @bobbker

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Posted: November 17, 2014

The String Cheese Incident at the State Theatre: It’s unlikey anyone left disappointed

Written by: Robert Ker
Photo by Robert Ker

Photo by Robert Ker

“You’ve got to see them live.”

Such is the mantra of the jam-band fan. Throughout the 1990s I repeated it to friends who may have wondered why I was listening to Phish albums that – let’s face it – sound as if they were written for children, or at least merely to indulge the artists’ mastery of complex time signatures. I’ve spent time with many such bands, with varying degrees of affection, but I’ve always side-eyed The String Cheese Incident.

Part of it is that name, sure – I’ve liked bands with worse names, but not many. Part of it is the fact that I tend to prefer the East Coast or Southern strains of jam bands. Whatever they grow out in Colorado or on the West Coast never did much for me; it’s too bluegrassy, too squiggly, and often too far afield from funk or blues. Part of my distaste for the band may have been because I’d never seen them perform in concert.

I haven’t intentionally avoided them. Since 2000, the only shows the band played in Maine were on a two-night stand in fall 2005. A lot of people in town hadn’t seen them, or else had waited a long time to see them again. This extended absence resulted in a palpable energy all week, and it’s highly unlikely that anyone left either of the two State Theatre shows disappointed.

Photo by Robert Ker

Photo by Robert Ker

On the second evening, they opened with “Come As You Are,” a percussion-heavy Latin number that sounded uncannily like Santana. “Little Hands” got off to a mellow, almost Willie Nelson-sounding beginning before Kyle Hollingsworth uncorked a Pigpen-esque piano solo, shifting the song into a fiddle-led hoedown. “BollyMunster” started off as an Irish-inflected jig before making a hard left turn in wobbly, Stevie Wonder-like funk and finally drifting into Middle Eastern melodies.

This range of influences was evident in the first three songs alone, blended smoothly enough to demonstrate how the music of many different cultural traditions are linked more closely than they may initially seem. This array of styles were chiefly used to service a fairly standard formula of dance-music concerts by anyone from Phish to LCD Soundsystem: energy is built, sustained, and released in ecstatic bursts.

The second set wasn’t quite as streamlined as the first. It was darker, weirder, and mired in slower tempos that denied the audience some of the immediate pleasures of the first set. The set picked up with a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that shifted between an “Iko-Iko”-like New Orleans boogie in the verses and uptempo ska in the chorus. I could have happily lived my life without hearing Cash’s most iconic song played in such a fashion, but mine was clearly a minority opinion in that room. From there, the band finished strong, returning to the epic scope that matched the light show and the jubilant vibe of the evening.

The String Cheese Incident

WHERE: The State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland
REVIEWED: November 14, 2014

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