String Cheese Incident - Carnival '99

The String Cheese Incident
Carnival '99

(SCI Fidelity)

First Appeared at The Music Box, September 2000, Volume 7, #9

Written by John Metzger


The latest band to break out of the overloaded jam band pack is none other than Colorado's The String Cheese Incident. While the group's popularity was no doubt bolstered by the past year's affiliation with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, it's more likely that SCI's name recognition has skyrocketed due to their relentless touring schedule and stark, accomplished musicianship. Like most jam bands, their studio albums have been somewhat lacking in spirit and emotion, but their concert performances are sheer bursts of improvisational brilliance. It's no surprise, then, that SCI's double live disc Carnival '99 may finally place them on the map.

The group has long been known to perform a wide range of cover songs from the Allman Brothers' Ramblin' Man and Southbound to Peter Gabriel's Shakin' the Tree and from Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile to The Eagles' Hotel California. While they have tended to steer clear of the vast Grateful Dead catalog (with the exception of Franklin's Tower), they also don't completely cut the umbilical chord. Instead, SCI employs many of the songs covered by the Grateful Dead, the Jerry Garcia Band, and Old & in the Way.

Fortunately, on Carnival '99, The String Cheese Incident tones down the overt connection to the Grateful Dead and begins to make its own way in the world. The set does include a resplendent rendition of Hey Pocky Way, but this owes much more to the legacy of The Meters and the Neville Brothers. In addition, SCI delivers a sparkling take on Shenandoah Breakdown and several jazz selections, including Wayne Shorter's Footprints and Weather Report's Birdland. One of the highlights, however, is their version of Jean Luc Ponty's Mauna Bowa. On this song, the group allows the melody to jubilantly carry them dodging and weaving along its rhythmic groove and carrying with it a feel-good ambience reminiscent of Rusted Root or Paul Simon's groundbreaking Graceland album.

Sprinkled among the cover songs are a variety of original compositions designed to display the many other facets of the band. Barstool is an upbeat country-rock tune reminiscent of Little Feat, while Black Clouds is an extended bluegrass jam that mutates into a loose-knit jazz-fusion motif before twisting back into the song itself via a spiraling, electrifying, mind-blowing musical journey. It's here that the band demonstrates the true nature of their talent. Instead of just mimicking their predecessors, they take their knowledge and understanding and utilize it to create something of their own.

Unfortunately, the whole package falls apart on the second disc as SCI derails into typical jam band-oriented stupidity. The opening "poem," titled Lester's Rant, might make for an odd diversion as a one-time concert experience, but on disc, it simply adds nothing. Faring even worse is the obligatory and tedious Drum Jam and the downright obnoxious and tiresome, frat-boy antics of Jellyfish. It's a really a shame, since the inclusion of these tracks ruins an otherwise glorious musical package. starstarstar

Carnival '99 is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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