The String Cheese Incident made a welcome return to Lake Tahoe Friday. March 17, at the Crystal Bay Casino, opening a three-night Winter Carnival Tour finale.
When it was announced months ago the legendary jam band would close out its Winter Carnival Tour in Tahoe, all three nights sold out in minutes. The run is the hottest ticket of the winter and you could feel that gravitas when you walked into the Crown Room. The place was packed. Like 15-hippies-piled-into-a-VW-van packed. If they had sold tickets to hang from the rafters and watch, they would have been able to sell those out, too.
The String Cheese Incident brings out the best in some people. It was awe-inspiring to see all those fun-loving humans synced together for the sole purpose of dancing and laughing the night away to the the heady vibes of SCI. Hands down, it was the best environment to catch a show at the Crystal Bay Club in years.
The Winter Carnival Tour is meant to be a return to SCI’s roots, playing smaller venues in the mountain towns that helped cultivate its sound and fans. The group decorated the stage with lamps and rugs to mark the intimate occasion and opened with an acoustic-eque first set. Michael Kang (guitar, fiddle), Michael Travis (drums), Bill Nershi (guitar), Kyle Hollingsworth (keyboards), Keith Moseley (bass), and Jason Hann (percussionist) strolled out on stage around 9:15 p.m., looking relaxed and stoked to be playing for a mass of loving people cheering warmly.
To kick off the celebration, The String Cheese Incident opened with the rousing instrumental “Indian Creek,” and everyone was off together on a trip to psychedelic bluegrass territory (much like the Moab Desert climbing spot that inspired the song). The band then beautifully transitioned into the tropical musings of “Way Back Home” and the night’s first ecstatic release from the crowd swelled through the room. That unique cross-pollination of Latin rhythms and acoustic jamming with a light undercurrent of funk is a big part of String Cheese’s sound and the musicians relished taking the song to new heights as the crowd bobbed along with them.
After a revitalizing “Joyful Sound,” Nershi smiled at the group of knucklehead dancers that had packed themselves in the Crystal Bay Club and merrily proclaimed, “Whoever is here are our people!” The place erupted in applause. The ebullient frontman certainly personified the laid-back vibe of both the region and the crowd by going barefoot in a brown, weed-embroidered cowboy shirt and jeans with his white beard and locks flowing freely. The band is just a slightly more polished rag-tag group of climbers and ski bums who enjoy weed, beer and the outdoors, who happened to “make it” playing music. If those aren’t cultural heroes to the Tahoe area, then no one is.
The first set ended with the one-two punch of classics “Outside Inside” and “Smile” before the band took a 15-minute break. Fans took the party to the craps tables and parking garage as SCI refueled its engines. The first set had been a reunion of sorts and many were feeling the glow of reconnecting with one of their favorite bands. The feeling was mutual, as Kang opened up the second set with a brief telling of their past stints in Tahoe. One night after a show at the now-closed Lakeview Pizza they all nestled together and slept on the floor of the bar, only to be woken up by the morning janitor and asked to leave. Kang also revealed that Moseley met his wife for the first time at a show at the defunct Bluewater Brewery that used to be near Squaw Valley, which elicited some spirited yelps from the crowd.
SCI skipped into the second set with a bubbling “Let’s Go Outside.” The sunny, hippie platitudes of the verses and chorus descended into a hazy funk led by the indomitable fingers of Hollingsworth. As the band was rippling through “These Waves,” you could feel the musical camaraderie flowing between all the musicians. Like the crowd, they were huddled tightly together on stage (especially considering the festivals and amphitheaters they usually play) and they eagerly passed the jam back and forth between themselves like a spliff. Kang, Hollingsworth and Nershi all had their moments, while Hann, Travis and Moseley kept the rhythm on track. All of them had each other’s back and were invested in the musical direction they were heading. Kang and Nershi couldn’t stop smiling and neither could the crowd.
A mammoth “Rivertrance” into “Desert Dawn” brought the second end to a close, a nod that you always save the best for last. “Happy St. Patrick’s Day,” quipped Kang before his fiddle catapulted the band into the sprawling instrumental “Rivertrance.” At some point the gang fell into a kitchen-sink jam where Travis, Hann and Moseley held down a subtle heavy metal rhythm while Hollingsworth sprinkled crystalline synths over Kang’s Byzantine fiddle riffs. It really shouldn’t have worked and any String Cheese-hater would point to that musical exploration first as to why they don’t like the band. But the fact is that it was jaw-droppingly impressive for the band to somehow find the common thread in that musical odyssey, something SCI has done its entire career, and the audience was kicking up a storm dancing to it. After a hyperspeed drum spectacle from Hann and Travis the group morphed the jam into the pulsing rocktronica of “Desert Dawn.” A blistering closing section left everyone in the room, from the stage to the crowd, in an euphoric buzz.
The String Cheese Incident capped its first night in Tahoe with the feel-good “Sweet Spot,” a song that perfectly captured where the band and the audience were at the moment. It was a magnificent return to the area for SCI and a memorable night of music. With two nights of music left to go in the Winter Carnival, the weekend is just warming up.