The equinox is still a few days away but there was a festive spring break vibe in the air as West Coast music fans descended upon San Diego. The city’s endless summer climate is always inviting, but even more so here as the String Cheese Incident brings their March Madness Tour to the city’s hip North Park neighborhood for two nights of musical mayhem. The Colorado-based jam rockers haven’t played San Diego in over a decade, but it wasn’t until recently that the city had an appropriate mid-sized venue for such a veteran band to play.
San Diego has long lagged behind Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area when it comes to quality music venues in the Golden State, but anchorman Ron Burgundy’s town has upped its venue class level with the North Park Observatory. Formerly known as the North Park Theater, the 1,200-capacity room re-opened in 2014 and finally has its liquor license worked out in 2016 so as to provide a proper atmosphere for serious music fans. The venue has great sightlines all across the room (as opposed to the Belly Up Tavern up the coast), air vents across the floor to keep the theater from getting too steamy, and a thriving neighborhood of high quality bars and restaurants in walking distance.
Hence, the North Park Observatory has quickly become one of the premiere venues to take in a show in all of California. Thus, String Cheese fans from across the region were drawn to North Park for this two-night stand. The band is coming off a four-night run from Reno to Oakland to Santa Barbara and are now ready to crank it up in San Diego before moving on to LA and Vegas. With two shows to do their thing, the band takes their time and seems like they’re crafting the North Park shows as one long “incident” with numerous peaks. The band delivers a solid show on night one, setting up a most memorable barnburner on night two.
The first night certainly has its moments as the genre-defying group mixes up a setlist that touched on bluegrass, classic rock, psychedelic trance rock, jazz, funk and Americana. Bassist Keith Moseley noted early on that he’s an alumni of San Diego State and is stoked to be back in town. The band seems jazzed to have a fresh new venue to get down in, delivering an upbeat show with a playful vibe.
Masters of the segue, String Cheese Incident’s “Lost” transitions smoothly into Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles” before moving back into “Lost”. Electric mandolinist Michael Kang stars on “Little Hands”, his tune about ancient sacred lands starts with a soft melodic vibe before exploding into an intense psychedelic jam that saw the stand’s first major space rock voyage. Few bands can navigate such sonic journeys as skillfully as String Cheese Incident, and the group artfully return to terra firma with their staple cover of the Eddie Harris/Miles Davis classic, “Freedom Jazz Dance”. The tight groove sees Moseley, drummer Michael Travis and percussionist Jason Hann dialed in like jazz masters while Kang, guitarist Bill Nershi and keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth weave melodic lines on top.
Set two blasted off with a hot version of the band’s classic “Come As You Are”, with Moseley thumping a fat bassline that leads into a funky teaser jam on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”. The band display their trademark socially-conscious vibe on “Piece of Mine”, a tune that rocks out while also contemplating the superficial consumer culture we live in. The set finishes strong with a jazzy jam on Weather Report’s “Birdland” leading into Nershi’s counterculture classic “Texas”, a fan favorite rocker about evading imperial entanglements in the Lone Star State. Another stellar psychedelic jam has the theater getting down as the set climaxes in vibrant style. The funky encore of “Let’s Go Outside” is a fitting capper as a plethora of options for post-show libations await in the North Park night.
Wednesday is a typically gorgeous day in San Diego, with many fans taking in the laid back vibe in the city’s Ocean Beach neighborhood. The scenic environs make for one of rock’s great vacation spots as fans explore the Sunset Cliffs, chill at the beach, peruse the Ocean Beach farmer’s market and scarf down lobster tacos and tropical mojitos while cavorting with mermaids at the Wonderland Pub overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Then it’s just a short 15-minute drive back to the central part of town for night two at the Observatory.
The band seemed to be pacing themselves at times on night one, which was agreeable to most since such strategy set up a second night that would sizzle from start to finish. String Cheese Incident announced such intentions tonight when they open with “Best Feeling”, a big jam vehicle co-written with Keller Williams that usually occupies a second set placement. Likewise for moving right into a smoking take on the bluegrassy arrangement of the traditional “I Know You Rider”, with Kang shredding melty hot licks.
The highlights keep flowing with a strong melodic jam on “Sometimes a River” and a surprise bustout jam on the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” that feels like a timely dedication to Bernie Sanders’ presidential hopes, following the previous day’s primaries. “Wake Up” continues that theme as Nershi sings “This song is for the people living this dream / Their minds twisted in an endless scream / We’re walking through a graveyard, the wind howling through the trees / We’ve got to wake up soon or life will pass by like a breeze…” A big jam on the band’s seminal “Round the Wheel” closes the set with a flourish to set up the climactic final set.
Those sensing an extra element of the band’s socially-conscious vibe in the first set receive confirmation when String Cheese Incident hits the stage with “Dirk”, Hollingsworth’s song formerly known as “Searching for Answers”. It’s a high-energy tune that mixes the band’s funk and blues stylings with lyrics that probes for answers to deep questions, making for a timely counterculture anthem that always gives fans a little something to think about while also getting their groove on. The tune has the whole room rocking out as the band’s stellar light show enhances the heady jam. “Valley of the Jig” takes fans to an even higher peak as the traditional melody surges into a psychedelic trance dance jam of epic proportions as Kang’s fiddle seems like it might emit smoke over the hot groove.
A classic combo of “Land’s End” into “Restless Wind” close the set with a flourish before the band returns to put an exclamation point on the run by busting out the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, a tune they hadn’t played in over a year. Moseley delivers the vocals with the requisite snarling menace, while Hann adds polyrhythmic percussion to set up Kang and Nershi to riff out. When all is said and done, there’s no doubt that San Diego has just experienced one of its top concert events of recent years, thanks to String Cheese March Madness.
The counterculture remains blessed to have a band like the String Cheese Incident still dedicated to delivering exploratory jams framed in a socially-conscious context. The belief that great rock ‘n’ roll can help influence society in a positive direction by uplifting the vibrations of the audience may fly under the mainstream radar, but such inspiration is of incalculable value to those who appreciate how rare and special such shamanistic musical services are in the modern age.