String Cheese Incident
Photo: Scott McCormick / Courtesy of the artist

String Cheese Incident Rock “The Days Between” at the Berkeley Greek

It was an uplifting two-night run and a genuine treat to have the String Cheese Incident back in the Bay Area to celebrate the sacred Days Between.

It’s a warm Friday evening here in the People’s Republic of Berkeley on 6 August, and there’s a festive feeling in the air that recalls the turn of the millennium for some longtime Bay Area music fans. The String Cheese Incident (SCI) are in town for a two-night stand at the Berkeley Greek Theater, just the second headliner of the season following the Greek’s 24 July opener with Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros. SCI haven’t played the Greek since 2012, but were regulars at the Greek throughout the first decade of the 21st century.

New Orleans funk masters Galactic are also in the house as tonight’s opening act, a longtime Bay Area favorite in their own right, making for an outstanding double bill. SCI and Galactic both served as openers for Phil Lesh & Friends here at the Greek on a two-night stand in August of 1999, so it feels appropriate for them to be back here during what’s become known as “The Days Between”. The annual celebration of Jerry Garcia’s life spanning from his birthday on 1-9 August (the day he passed from the Earthly plane) has become a Bay Area tradition, and so it feels special for SCI to be back at the Greek this week. 

There’s also an auspicious vibe from the fact that these two shows on 6-7 August fall on the 20-year anniversary of the band’s performances at the Mt. Shasta Ski Park in 2001. It’s a genuinely epic venue that seems no longer viable but provided the stage for a pair of monumental shows with the second night immortalized in the band’s “On the Road” archive series.

Galactic comes out at 6:00 pm and get the Greek grooving from the start. The band launch an hour-long dance party with their festive funk and soul tunes, distilled as they rose up through the clubs of New Orleans in the ‘90s. Drummer/ringleader Stanton Moore and bassist Robert Mercurio have formed one of the best rhythm sections in live music for about a quarter-century now, with guitarist Jeff Raines, keyboardist Rich Vogel and saxman Ben Ellman all still holding down their original positions as well. The band are so deeply connected to the New Orleans funk tradition that they even saved the legendary Tipitina’s Nightclub by purchasing it in 2018.

The only position on Galactic’s groovy spaceship trip that’s changed is the vocals, as the band have experimented with a number of talented singers from both genders over the years. Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph holds the spot now and provides a soulful vibe, whether she’s crooning R&B numbers or belting out high-energy rockers. Some jaded vets knock the set as a relatively standard one afterward. But it’s an uplifting session of feel-good music for the body and soul any way you slice it, which is quite inspiring in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the live music industry last year.

The good vibes continue when the String Cheese Incident hit the stage with their patented blend of rock, bluegrass, funk, and psychedelic space jamming. “Just One Story” is an early highlight, as electric mandolin player Michael Kang sings of some ancient mythology that still provides insightful wisdom for today’s crazy world. They take the song for a delightful 15-minute ride that’s followed by another peak moment as guitarist Bill Nershi welcomes Peter Rowan to the stage. Well known as a Jerry Garcia collaborator, Rowan’s appearance makes for a fitting nod to “The Days Between”.

Rowan sings “Lonesome LA Cowboy”, a crowd-pleasing tune that he authored, from the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s 1973 album The Adventures of Panama Red. The short but sweet cosmic cowboy anthem serves as a prelude for a glorious jam with Rowan on “Sweet Melinda”. The band catches a tight groove from the start here, with drummer Michael Travis, percussionist Jason Hann, and bassist Keith Moseley locking in while keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth and the guitarists weave alluring melodies. It’s a top-shelf sequence demonstrating why SCI are still going strong after more than 25 years, as the band spins the groove around to keep building energy before climaxing with a tease of the “Turn on Your Lovelight” groove popularized by the Grateful Dead.

“Sweet Spot” and “Beautiful” from 2017’s Believe album close the set with a flourish as Kang sings out an inspiring message on the latter for everyone to see their own beauty, while Hollingsworth delivers a trippy synth solo over a furious dance beat. One of the shortest set breaks in recent memory ends after only about 20 minutes, with the band eager to use as much of the precious Greek stage time as they can. 

A spacey jam on “Vertigo” builds in energy until it flows into the Hollingsworth anthem “Close Your Eyes”, one of the band’s most infectious tunes. This is quintessential SCI as the band brings the groove down for Nershi to play melodious acoustic leads before they build it back up with skillful layering to turn the Greek into a psychedelic sensorium. A triumphant instrumental jam on “Hi Ho No Show” finds Kang and Nershi dueling with fiddle and guitar as SCI conjure energy from olden times with modern flair. That’s before the jam morphs into a trippy electro-breakbeat section that demonstrates a diversity few other bands could attempt much less master.

The vibe deepens when Nershi leads the band into the reggae-tinged groove of “Shantytown”, a mystical fan favorite with some of the socio-political reflection that SCI has long been known for. The bridge features some Santana-esque vibes with stellar percussion from Hann and organ from Hollingsworth before the jams soar with Kang ripping molten hot riffage recalling those Mt. Shasta shows from 20 years ago. The peak wave of the jam breaks into a groove that starts to sound like Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”, almost by accident, it seems as Hollingsworth asks the crowd if they know how to sing it. Kang and Hann both take brief playful stabs before the band wisely aborts to close the set in style with the groovy sound of “Let’s Go Outside”.

Night Two – Saturday, 7 August

It’s a different vibe 24 hours later as Galactic have moved on, with Big Head Todd & the Monsters now in the opener slot. There’s no line to get in when gates open, suggesting the band doesn’t have nearly the draw that Galactic did. This is the case as the Greek won’t approach the same size audience until the headliners come on. Big Head Todd offers a solid bluesy set with a ZZ Top tribute to the recently departed Dusty Hill, but few are up on their feet, and the energy is nothing like the groovy vibes that Galactic brought to the stage on Friday.

The temperature also dips to a colder level than the night before, with some of the classic Berkeley Greek fog rolling in. That makes for a much different vibe, though Greek veterans are prepared with the needed layers for the cooler weather. When SCI hit the stage with their classic “Best Feeling”, an excellent collective feeling is conjured. Some dynamic percussion from Hann and vocoder psychedelia from Hollingsworth take the song to a deeper level, and the show is off to a hot start to warm things up.

“Sand Dollar” is another highlight with a Latin jazz vibed groove where the band takes a trippy ride down a cosmic wormhole as they explore sonic highways and byways from what feels like an alternate dimension. That segues smoothly into Keith Moseley’s “Sirens”, an ever timely tune about transcending the dice of fate in the 21st century. Nershi’s “Colorado Bluebird Sky” closes the set with a jamgrassy flourish, as he even alters the lyrics at the end to “California bluebird sky”.

It’s another short set break before the band comes back with a special treat. “In the spirit of the Days Between, we’re gonna do one of the Garcia/Hunter tunes because why wouldn’t we, ya know?” Moseley says to the agreeable crowd’s delight. Big Head Todd’s Todd Park Mohr sits in here and sings the lead vocal on a sparkling version of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”, with gorgeous solos from Nershi on acoustic guitar and Hollingsworth on piano. Mohr stays on as the electric part of the jam smoothly segues into the classic title track from SCI’s 2001 album Outside and Inside, which continues to resonate 20 years later with a deep 21st-century zeitgeist as few other albums from the turn of the millennium still do. Mohr delivers some hot lead guitar riffage here as the band really crank up the energy level.

A very groovy instrumental jam on “Bollymunster” conjures similar heady vibes as the previous night’s “Hi Ho No Show” jam, with Kang mixing in some Middle Earth fiddle over a hot trance dance groove. The Strawberry Canyon fog rolls in here to provide an extra mystical effect as the Greek dance party hits high gear. The band then carries the energy into the classic “Desert Dawn”, and this is where the String Cheese Incident puts their full tone science skills on display, with Kang leading a multi-dimensional sonic journey. The high-energy rocker moves into a spacey sequence where it feels like contact could be made with higher dimensional beings before the band cranks up the interstellar overdrive for a rocking trip through time and space.

The band closes the set in climactic fashion with “Black Clouds”, one of their most beloved jamgrass classics about the dilemma of whether to stay together or go separate ways when a relationship hits a rough spot. The jam gives way to a more jazzy bluesy sequence before moving into a rock section and then back to the bluegrass for a diverse ride through the band’s entire bag of sonic tricks. It’s been an uplifting two-night run and a genuine treat to have the String Cheese Incident back in the Bay Area to celebrate the sacred Days Between.