Credit the String Cheese Incident for developing one of the most fervid audiences on the jam band circuit. Their style’s uniqueness is so tailored to their own tastes and curiosities that, to a certain degree, it’s a wonder they can sell out the Wiltern two nights in a row with absolutely no corporate assistance. As an independent operation, this is grassroots music at its best, a demonstration that free spirits can create music that can connect with an audience — and one assumes it will be quite some time, unless there’s an earthquake, before the Wiltern balcony structure will be swaying and bobbing the way it was Saturday.
The String Cheese Incident plays long songs. In some cases they are more like movements that touch on fiddle tunes, reggae, funk and honky-tonk country.
The second set of their three-hour show began with a 40-minute number that went through five distinct blocks of melody, starting with bluegrass and ending with a fiery bombastic rock interlude.
If it sounds like yet another Grateful Dead experience, there’s a smidgen of truth to that. The Dead’s distinctiveness was a three-hour blanket of sound that drifted into a tangent only when the members did their solo shots; the Cheese is more like the old joke about New England weather — if you don’t like it, wait 10 minutes and it will change.
The Colorado-based band began a move to national stages a mere four years ago, having stepped up the size of the venue each time they visited L.A. (House of Blues, John Anson Ford Theatre, Wiltern).
They will be releasing their fifth album in May on their own SCI Fidelity label after this tour swings through the South and Midwest. How it will sound is anyone’s guess, as leader Bill Nershi makes very few stage announcements and never talks about the songs.
Which is certainly where the Dead attitude takes effect: The music does do the talking. Michael Kang is absolutely brilliant as a lead guitarist and a dramatic fiddle player. He seems to pick up the band and move them with him wherever he may go and at whatever tempo he may chose.
The other instrumentalists take their solos in a more traditional manner, showcasing technique over an unchanging rhythm pattern. Funny thing is, the faster they play, the more interesting they are; the slower they get, the more they seem to settle on less-than-gripping interludes.
Band was joined at the end of the first set by three members of Little Feat: pianist Bill Payne, percussionist Sam Clayton and guitarist Fred Tackett (Feat Cheese, anyone?)
The expanded unit turned a sensual and loping — even if it was too long — rendition of the Feat’s “Spanish Moon” before turning an SCI set of chord changes over which each member jammed.
While it generated some stellar play from Payne and a joyous drum duet between Clayton and Michael Travis, it did point to the lack of truly distinct songwriting within the SCI catalog.
One hopes the Cheese’s new album shows a new side of the act, one that will propel them into the league of the Feat and their other timbrel ancestors.