By Mike Marsala • Photos by Brady Cooling • Audio by Will Urquhart
“I saw Jerry Garcia Band play here. I saw H.O.R.D.E. show right there,” said keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth (who was celebrating a “hometown” show of sorts). The opening notes to the Kyle driven tune, “Let’s Go Outside”, kicked off what was the beginning of two great sets of Cheese that night.
Before we get into the Cheese set (which crushed!), I’d like to note some other musical highlights from Merryland Music Festival last weekend.
It is still hard for me to see Yonder Mountain String Band without Jeff Austin because it sometimes sounds different, but with time I’ve come to enjoy the new sound especially having Allie Kral on fiddle, and even the newest album titled, Black Sheep, is pretty strong. Stephen “Ragga” Marley was a good time. Afternoon reggae vibes to get things warmed up with Stephen’s original and, of course, all the Bob Marley classics.
When Lotus stepped on stage, Merryland was elevated to a new level. Just like the first time I saw them, they opened with “Jump Off,” a funky journey through Lotus’ smooth sound. Mike Rempel’s guitar licks with Jesse’s fat bass fills engulfed MPP for one heck of a start to the set. They jammed this one out and by the end everyone in the audience was moving. We knew it was going to be one of those fire afternoon sets of funk. And while it may be different from say, a late night Lotus festival set, it was definitely a very strong set. Saying they warmed up the stage for Cheese would be an understatement.
“The Jump Off” was a great way to kick things into gear. Then, they hopped into a nice “Cold Facts.” But what really set things over the edge was a gritty soaring rendition of “Mikesnack.” It was clear this was going to be a really strong set even if the guys didn’t have a full two sets to rock their fans. They wasted no time moving with a sweet segue of songs “Shimmer > Triplet> Golden Ghost > C# > Nematode.” The guys clearly knew their audience, time and setting: this was a pre-SCI funk fueled dance odyssey to get the grooves going steady. They nailed their set and honestly the band is sounding pretty strong these days still, definitely not in “cruise control.” The set ended tie “Greet the Mind” and “Gilded Age.” Hats off to Lotus for getting the party started right!
String Cheese Incident kept their energy from the first song, “Lets Go Outside,” off their 2014 album Song in my Head. Kyle got the scorching key work going early and everyone seemed pleased with this opener, but everyone was really locked in for gametime as the band launched into “Best Feeling,” a fan favorite that transitioned into a classic “Johnny Cash”. Strong start to the set. “Get Tight” and “Yo Se” followed, fun tunes, some folks are fans of “Get Tight” unlike others.
Just when I thought we may get one or two more decent songs to conclude a good first set, String Cheese Incident really showed us they were here to make an impression as headliner at the festival.
“And the Rhythm of the Road holds the answer to the question on our minds. I know that we can keep faith, things will all work out in time,” exclaimed the band as Kang launches into an electric mandolin solo that took us to many peaks and valleys before coming to a big buildup that ended with the band effortlessly moving back to the slow paced riff played at the beginning of the song. It is indeed the Rhythm of the Road that has kept String Cheese Incident one of the most sought after live acts on the live music scene.
“Black Clouds” is a staple song for The String Cheese Incident. The entire song is a showcase of SCI’s bluegrass genius, and it’s a reminder of how the band started. And even though they’re a bluegrass band at the core, the band is glad to have variety in their lives. A great choice cut to end the set.
It would be hard for me to be in a band that only did bluegrass or only did rock. It’s so fun as a player to try to tap in and play authentically in those different genres. – Keith Moseley, String Cheese Incident
The first set was fun and had a mix of old and new tunes. The funky bass and percussion kicked off a fun “Can’t Wait Another Day”. The group went right after some fan favorite material early in the second set with “Lonesome Fiddle Blues,” inviting guest Jay Starling on dobro of the regional favorite bluegrass ensemble, Love Canon. Jay is well known in the area for frequently sitting in with bands. In fact, the last time I saw him he was sitting in with The Trongone Band in Richmond at the Broadberry for a late night Widespread Panic after party. The weekend before that he’d been seen in DC performing with Greensky Bluegrasss during their sold-out 3 night run at the 9:30 Club. His sit-in during “Lonesome Fiddle Blues”, gauging by audience excitement, was certainly one of the highlights of the evening up to that point.
Then when I wasn’t sure what direction the set list would turn, they went into yet another Cheese classic, “Joyful Sound.” Billy’s acoustic guitar followed Keith’s bass line as Kyle, Kang, Hann, and Michael fall into place. If you’re still reading this you probably already know that while it isn’t uncommon, “Joyful Sound,” does remain a fan-favorite and a fan sing-along. A standard take on a classic song, in all a very good way to bust out a big one early second set.
Then they played a good rendition of “Down a River” and then yet another crowd pleaser, “Believe.” At this point it was clear that while this wasn’t “the best show ever” from Cheese, it far exceeded a typical “festival set.” Even Keith says, “our fan base is super accepting of our experimentation and seems to really embrace the different music styles that we play. Being in front of our own crowd is a really comfortable place for us and allows us to really express ourselves musically without other concerns of who plays after us or what’s the focus of the festival.” That being said, they delivered the goods on Saturday.
A mammoth filthy fat bass bomb from Keith Mosley could be heard to kick off “Jellyfish”, and it is safe to say fans could cite the lyrics the next day, “drank too much tequila, now I”m seeing red”. The words may seem silly – “my brain is just a jellyfish in the ocean of my head,” but to those who understand the Rhythm of the Road, it is a signature goofy song about getting too drunk and not feeling well. It also happens to be a song that, like Black Clouds (but in a different way) sums up part of why I like this band.
Variety. Variety done very well is something I always pride String Cheese Incident on. For example, one show might find them shift from a harder rock leaning sound on something like “Beautiful” to a classic rendition of “Midnight Moonlight” at the flip of a dime.
In this case it was a switch from “Jellyfish” to “Close Your Eyes.” The send off of the night was a song about soul searching and how what you need might just be right in front of you. Perhaps all we’ve been looking for our whole lives is within reach, “Love he needs and hopes to find has been with him all the time.” Kang’s soaring electric mandolin capped off this number to end a pretty darn good second festival set.
Then they hit us with it, a straight-ahead ripping rendition of “Desert Dawn”. If you aren’t already aware the boys build up and bring this song on home so well. The buildup of tension and release at the end of this jam is one to not miss and honestly it’s one of the songs that first got me into this band. Kyle’s organ work on this one is simply outstanding. “I love being able to have a strong band that can flow with any direction the music might go. I tend to just move through what feels good and hope it all works out. I think when the band is locked we can go anywhere with any tune,” Kyle Hollingsworth recently told us in an interview.
The show ended with Kang picking up the violin for the bizarre and ever intriguing sound of Bollymonster. A great send off to a good night of music.
What Cheese does is deliver. They’re top tier in the jam realm, there is no denying that. There are a lot of fun bands, then great bands, those bands that set you over the top, and legends (Hendrix, Marley, etc.). String Cheese sets me over the top and while they’ve never really gone “mainstream” they’re a household name in “the scene” and their recent shows are an indication that the band is in a good place in their career. The music is strong, the sets are good, and they’re playing with energy. Perhaps it’s because they’re giving themselves good adequate break time these days or maybe they’re just “feelin it”, but right now it appears they’re one of the best bands on the jam scene you can see right now. And for those who “like them, but haven’t seen them much”, this is your chance, go see them this summer and prepare to feel like a fool for having missed out on so much fun.