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CD Review: String Cheese Incident – One Step Closer

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First posted on Mark Is Cranky:

Some people love to make fun of the whole jam band phenomenon with its neo-hippie fans, traveling road show tour scene and supposedly unfocused, ‘noodling’ music. For me it all boils down to a sense of community. Yea, even the ‘noodling’ solos (more on that later).

The String Cheese Incident is all about community. Sure, the bluegrass-inflected folk/jazz/whatever-the-heck-it-is music is what’s most important, but the support structure radiating from the tunes, the band and the fans is truly inspiring. Just check out the side-projects: Madison House Travel, a travel agency that helps fans (and bands) travel to show locales; SCI Fidelity Records, the home-grown record label which releases all of String Cheese’s material as well as records from other deserving artists; SCI Ticketing, handles direct artist-to-fan ticket sales for the Cheese as well as other groups such as King Crimson, Keller Williams and Charlie Hunter (plus, they sued Ticketmaster for extra indie music karma points); Footprints Foundation, the band’s ‘heart’, helping organize food drives and, as they like to say, other ‘gouda’ causes. String Cheese’s DIY attitude puts them in the same camp as someone like Ani DiFranco – they’re artists who’ve gone outside the corporate music machine and have forged a new business model.

Equally multifaceted is the music. Acoustic rock, folk, bluegrass, jazz and who knows what-all blend to produce a pretty unique brew. Rhythmic twists and turns, surprising choices for cover material (“Walk This Way”?!), tightrope improvisation – yea, this band is full ‘o ideas.

So how did String Cheese go from the experimental Untying The Knot to the more concise songsmithery of their current One Step Closer? Well, it seems as though the guys have been in a more reflective mood of late. Hey, it happens. People get older and have to find ways of dealing with that inevitability. Guitarist Bill Nershi:

    “Things have changed a lot in the last few years, both with the music and our personal lives. Some of us have families, babies and houses now. We’re right in the middle of re-assessment, re-evaluation, coming up with a new game plan, imagining where we want to be in five years. It’s an interesting time.”

The songs on One Step Closer may come as a shock to some of the fans. The focus is on melodic development and hooks as opposed to the usual extended solos and jamology. I see this as a bold move. They had something to say and, rather than play it safe, they followed their instincts. Sure, it’s funny to think that the same group who bluegrassed up Weather Report’s “Birdland” can turn around and write “The Big Compromise”, a lilting song that wouldn’t be out of place on a John Hiatt record. Still, all of the usual String Cheese musical tasties are there…but toned down a bit (check out “Drive”, “Betray The Dark” and “Rainbow Serpent”). But have faith people, as Keith Moseley says:

    “…And starting this summer, when we play the new songs live, a 3-minute song may turn into a 6-minute song or longer. On stage is a great place for the improvisational vibe and the hook to co-exist.”

That’s what I like about this jam band’s musical ethic. String Cheese takes a decidedly jazz-like approach, using the songs as source material for the improvisations to follow.

Ah, and those long, ‘noodling’ solos? A player is riding on top of a tune’s structure and coming up with interesting ideas that tie the song’s parts together. He’s both extending and completing the song. And while it’s for the musician, it’s for the fans too. If that’s not community, I don’t know what is.

(For more on One Step Closer, check out Blogcritic Aaman Lamba’s fine review here.)

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About Mark Saleski

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Thankee Mark for the reference – fine review yrs too – gets at the heart of the Cheese factory:)

  • http://www.midnitcafe.blogspot.com Mat Brewster

    SCI are a lot like the Dead to me. In that I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve heard of them live, but am generally underwhelmed by their studio output. Although, admittedly, I haven’t heard all that much of their studio stuff. Any recommendations on studio albums?

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    One Step Closer and Untying the Not, ignore the other one.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    they also have a ton of live recordings here