It’s about 7:00 o’clock on a gorgeous, perfectly clear July 20 evening in Manhattan. The sounds of a band playing Weather Report’s “Birdland” flutter across Central Park and reach me as I round Madison Avenue onto East 69th Street.
Entering Central Park’s Summer Stage — a cozy and friendly outdoor concert venue — a lovable mix of urban hippies appears silhouetted as the sun sets to the west. Many of them spin like dreidels and share their infectious sense of casual bliss. Some are in Birkenstocks while others are barefoot. Long hair, beards, cut-off jeans, tie-dyes, and microbrewery T-shirts are as abundant as the genuine, eardrum-to-eardrum smiles.
Why all the joy? These “Stringheads” have gathered in Manhattan’s urban wilderness to see the String Cheese Incident, a highly versatile and talented quintet that began playing the apres-ski circuit in Crested Butte, Colorado in 1993. After eight years and more than 1,000 “incidents” (as they call their shows), they are here at sea level making new friends in New York.
Given their enthusiasm and tight musicianship, that’s easy. From their bouncy instrumental jazz opener, the band moves into “Miss Brown’s Teahouse,” a funkier tune featuring Michael Kang’s mellifluous work on electric guitar and Bill Nershi’s more traditional playing on acoustic guitar. Michael Travis’s drumming surprises with colorful flourishes and occasional riffs on more exotic percussion instruments. While Keith Moseley sets the pace on bass, keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth offers lively and fluid solos on tune after tune.
This band’s show is practically a travelogue. “Suntan” invokes a tropical party, perhaps at Harry Belafonte’s beach house in the 1960s. “Missin’ Me” is a more straightforward Southern rock number, along the lines of “Willie and the Hand Jive” as channeled by Little Feat.
The sounds of Cameroon appear in “Mouna Bowa,” a song by Guy Nsangue and jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty captured on the latter’s excellent 1991 album “Tchokola.” Some rhythms recall Paul Simon’s collaboration with South African musicians on his landmark “Graceland” effort. The members of String Cheese Incident apparently listen as sedulously as they play.
None of this is presented in the sterile atmosphere of a music-appreciation class. The give and take between the band and its terribly appreciative audience lifts each to higher states of rapture. On “Orange Blossom Special,” Kang puts down his elegant, hollow-body guitar and confidently picks up a fiddle. The crowd roars as he breaks into electric bluegrass. “I hear a train coming,” Nershi says, as he rips into an intense flurry of acoustic picking.
Guest artist Robert Randolph, a recently discovered pedal-steel sensation from northern New Jersey, sends the fans into a frenzy with what looks like a combination of a supine guitar and a kindergarten auto-harp. As Randolph’s fingers become airborne over the pedal steel’s strings, Hollingsworth’s dissonant piano solo counterposes rhythms that stir the crowd like a bubbling cauldron.
The String Cheese Incident is one of the increasingly popular satellites to revolve around the dark star known as Grateful Dead. Stilled since the death of the band’s lead guitarist and first-among-equals Jerry Garcia six summers ago, Grateful Dead remains a potent inspiration to fans and bands alike.
That group’s influence on this one is evident in the overall combination of vocal harmonies with long, inspirational jams that build steadily toward arm waving, torso twisting and often multiple climaxes. Like Grateful Dead, the String Cheese Incident blends rock and roll, jazz, bluegrass, and country and western rhythms. Here and there, guitar licks pop through the speakers as if Garcia himself were plucking away while strolling along “Shakedown Street.”
Meanwhile, it’s amazingly cool for July 20. What global warming? As night sets in, a refreshing breeze winds its way among the fans, some of whom have flannel shirts wrapped around their waists. The occasional sweater actually has been donned. It seems as if more stars twinkle above than bugs flap in the breeze. It’s Santa Monica on the Hudson.
After “Stop That Train” yields to a 20-minute long jam and the songs “Land’s End” and — appropriately enough — “Smile,” the band encores with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” This old gospel tune incorporates blues and bluegrass flavors. From mellow vocal harmonies, a final, sudden hoedown erupts, just before this sizzling show comes to an end.
Amid the stunning banality of so much music these days, it’s highly refreshing to see the term “sell out” refer to this packed venue itself rather than the act on stage.
After the performance, about two dozen Stringheads stand in a nearby subway station waiting for the 6 Train to whisk them downtown. A Chinese violinist in a red, white, blue, and black madras shirt plays classical selections with a ripped piece of rag nestled between his chin and his instrument. The crowd on the platform stands in rapt attention, some scrutinizing his every knuckle through their steady stares. New Yorkers tend to gaze at their shoes as musicians play, occasionally noticing them while they glance up as the trains decelerate to deposit and collect passengers.
This group bursts into warm applause after just one song. As the 6 Train arrives and opens its doors, they give the violinist a hearty ovation and stuff greenbacks into his tip-box before stepping into the subway’s well-chilled cars. Hard-working musicians beget hard-working fans.