Berkeley’s Greek Theatre bids farewell to the Cheese!
After August 12, 2007, the String Cheese Incident (SCI), a beloved band 15 years in the making, will be no more. But before that fateful day arrives, SCI will give many concerts in some of their favorite and most frequented venues across the United States.
Fresh off the plane after performing at the 10,000 Lakes Festival as the replacement act for scheduled headliner Trey Anastasio, SCI performed two shows at the William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre. Nestled into the lush green hillside of the University of California – Berkeley campus, the venue known locally as the Greek Theatre gives off a warm, welcoming energy to all who enter her gates. Tall, venerable eucalyptus and pine trees surround the venue, which dates to 1903 and some college kids are even lucky enough to have a view inside from their dormitories.
Saturday, July 21
Upon entering the classic Roman outdoor amphitheatre mid-afternoon on Saturday, July 21, concert attendees noticed the unique open-air loading and equipment area on stage, the large combined capacity (8,500) of the floor, as well as seating and grass sections. Opening acts the Disco Biscuits and Sound Tribe Sector Nine (STS9) were allowed rather long sets, filling in the floor area with their fans.
As SCI took the stage, an ethereal glow enveloped the area as the sun passed behind the columned background of the stage. Thousands of ecstatic, colorful Cheese fans gave a loud welcome to the band as they began to play the jubilant Jean-Luc Ponty song “Mouna Bowa.” The song was a perfect opener for the evening, complementing the ideal temperate climate and lighthearted energy of the crowd.
Bringing out the Stevie Wonder classic “I Wish,” SCI elevated the energy into a groove only a Stevie song could inspire. Moving into bluegrass, Billy Nershi led the band with crisp, quick vocals on “Love is Like a Train” with Kyle Hollingsworth pounding out some saloon-inspired piano.
The very elegant Latin jazz influenced Hollingsworth song “MLT” was absolutely flawless (even with Nershi grinding the air with his hips) making the crowd focus on the quality musicianship of the band. Giving Cheese fans a (figurative) dose of ecstasy, SCI played a ridiculously fast-paced version of the traditional bluegrass song “I Know You Rider” with percussionist Jason Hann playing a washboard, into Bob Marley’s “Stir it Up” and back into “I Know You Rider” to close the first set.
Unfortunately during the second set some audio-related problems could be heard randomly through the speakers, but by the end the problem had been resolved. The first highlight of the second set came during “Desert Dawn” when Aron Magner and Jon Gutwillig of the Disco Biscuits joined SCI, adding electronica and distortion elements into the mix of the 15-minute version of the song.
The second highlight came with fan favorite “Way Back Home” into the instrumental “Birdland,” which displayed Hollingsworth’s abilities on keys, Keith Moseley’s steady funky bass rhythms, and Michael Travis’ perfect time on drums.
Up on the highest level of the amphitheatre – the grass area – another world opened up to fans. Backlit by the silver shining crescent moon, dozens of hula hoopers displayed their graceful dance. The band played tribute to their friend and sometimes musical guest Keller Williams with a solid performance of “Best Feeling,” which blended back into “Way Back Home.”
During both sets, Hann was all smiles, bursting with positive energy and making a real connection with the crowd. SCI ended the show with the fan favorite “Search” displaying Michael Kang’s mastery of the violin. The crowd couldn’t have been more satisfied, giving loud applause and shouts of approval, but then again, most in attendance were also looking forward to the next show.
Sunday, July 22
Showtime on Sunday, July 22, was much earlier with the contemporary bluegrass group Hot Buttered Rum String Band (HBRSB) taking the first opening slot around noon. Nershi came on stage with his acoustic guitar for the band’s final two songs, “Honkeytonk Tequilia” and “Cumberland Blues.”
The floor area filled as the seasoned second opener, Railroad Earth (RRE), took the stage following HBRSB. The band, with their heartfelt lyrics and delicate bluegrass sound, always touches audience members in a rather unusual way. Nershi, on his electric guitar, joined RRE on their last song, “Mourning Flies.”
The sun was high and the air was hot as SCI took the stage on Sunday afternoon. The energy of the crowd and band was intense and quite different than on the previous evening. Murmurs of hope for a bluegrass-focused show could be heard amongst the crowd. SCI opened with the mellow “Shine,” allowing the crowd and the guys a chance to ease into the glorious day.
Cheese fans were treated to some of their favorites such as “Jellyfish,” “Black Clouds,” and “Farther” during the sets. Throughout the show, SCI invited members of the opening bands and later the entire bands up to share the stage with them, heightening the onstage energy to a level most in the crowd had never experienced before.
Watching each band member’s mutual adoration and appreciation of one another’s talents was almost enough to make onlookers tear-up. The culmination of the show and various collaborations came at the end of the second set when SCI announced that they were going to have “A Hot Buttered Railroad Incident.”
SCI couldn’t figure out where HBRSB members had disappeared to saying, “No, it’s the Hot Buttered Guys who are all drugged out and wasted.” Once they emerged, the never-before-seen Incident played a bluegrass version of the classic Christian tune “Whiskey Before Breakfast” about which Nershi commented, “This is what you call a cluster pluck.” The intense breakdown jam at the end was too fast to keep up with dancing.
The Incident went right into The Carter Family tune “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” With so many people onstage, Nershi or Kang signaled to the individual musicians for their solo parts. The multi-vocal harmonies and insane interweaving of instruments proved that a huge group of immensely talented musicians can come together with precision. SCI thanked the other bands and played “Smile” as the second encore of the show.
SCI was much more in touch with the crowd on Sunday night. Before the second encore, Nershi gazed out at the crowd as the fans stood in disbelief at what they had just been part of and witnessed. As the night concluded, the crowd felt overjoyed when he said, “You guys seem to think we’re pretty cool. But … watching all you guys just let go and dance your asses off, you are the true heroes.”
Set One: Mouna Bowa, I Wish, Love Is Like A Train, Sometimes A River, Turn This Around, MLT > Drums > Rain > I Know You Rider > Stir It Up > I Know You Rider
Set Two: Eye Know Why > Looking Glass > Desert Dawn*, The Way You Do The Things Yo Do > Way Back Home > Birdland > Best Feeling > Way Back Home
* with Jon Gutwillig and Aron Magner (Disco Biscuits)
Set One: Shine, Little Hands > Dudley’s Kitchen, I’ll Fly Away*, The Walls Of Time*, Black Market > Jellyfish > Black Clouds
Set Two: Piece Of Mine > Bumpin’ Reel, Farther, Long Way To Go^, Sweet Melinda^ > Lovelight Jam > What A Day That Was > It Is What It Is
Encore One: Whiskey Before Breakfast*^ Will The Circle Be Unbroken*^
Encore Two: Smile
* with Hot Buttered Rum String Band
^ with Railroad Earth
String Cheese Incident, 7/21-22/07 || Berkeley, CA @ the Greek Theatre
All photos by Keith Berson / keithberson.com
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