A studio album can become a task of two dimensions for a jam-band like String Cheese Incident. They must attempt to attract new fans from the mainstream music scene, while at the same time pleasing road-happy followers who don’t want to be disillusioned by abridged versions of their favorite tour jams. Yet this Colorado quintet hasn’t disappointed anyone with their latest studio effort, entitled “Round the Wheel.” The summer tour schedule for SCI, which included appearances with moe. and Strangefolk on the Hoodoo Bash tour and two days at the Gathering of the Vibes Festival, definitely left many new fans “itchin’ for an Incident,” and this studio release (nationwide Sept. 22) should propel the boys further toward jam-band stardom.
The album begins with a brief “Samba DeGreeley” jam leading into “Come As You Are” (not the Kurt Cobain one), a tune with heavy Latin flavor featuring Paul McCandless (formerly a regular guest on tour with the Flecktones) on soprano sax. McCandless appears on several other tracks as well. There’s some great solo interplay between keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth and electric mandolin whiz Michael Kang. This album is perhaps missing some of Kang’s soaring, (dare I say) Anastasio-esque solos that you’ll hear at any live Incident, but he does pull off a few here and there. Be warned – he will blow you away. “Restless Wind,” a grassy piece by acoustic guitarist Billy Nershi, features Kang on fiddle and guest Tony Furtado on banjo. “On the Road” is another bluegrass song, a simple one that includes great solo work by Nershi and Hollingsworth. My other favorites are “100 Year Flood,” a great number written by Billy with a pop/bluegrass feel, and “MLT” (My Latin Tune), an instrumental that Kyle wrote (and yes, it is a Latin tune). “Galactic,” an obvious nod to some old touring buddies, is the one song that doesn’t seem to fit in so well, at least in my opinion. There’s some strange and unnecessary vocal effects, but there is some nice funky organ work by Hollingsworth. The title track is another great one, with a tight bass line by Keith Moseley and some simple but nice lyrics. They close with a beautiful grassy special with Furtado on banjo again, “Good Times Around the Bend.” I like this one a lot — Billy’s voice is amazing.
The lyrics on this record don’t impress me all that much; most songs have the familiar themes of either life on the road (I guess you write about what you know — these guys are always on tour) or open-mindedness and acceptance of diversity. One thing that does impress me is the cover art — gorgeous wheel of life design on the front courtesy of Michael Everett and Terrapin Productions, Ltd. Co., and a beautiful batik on the back cover by Austin Shaw. Who says good looks can’t count for something?
Appropriately billed as “your all-weather mountain dance band,” the Cheese blatantly defies categorization. Most would label the music as “psychedelic bluegrass” with a humorous quirk, but I think “Round the Wheel” proves that it’s much more than that. They’re still a bluegrass-oriented band at bottom, but there are distinct new elements of funk, jazz, and Latin dance explored on this record. Kyle Hollingsworth is perhaps the hidden star of the CD on piano and organ. Hollingsworth, who didn’t even appear on the SCI studio debut, “Born on the Wrong Planet,” has proven himself as a performer and as a songwriter. Check out “MLT” and see for yourself. It’s easy to overlook the rich textures of percussion laid down by Michael Travis too. He’s got all sorts of gadgets going on. To me, “Round the Wheel” exemplifies how a band like the String Cheese Incident can combine so many musical styles and elements and still maintain a tight, cohesive groove. The solo trade-offs on some of these tracks are just amazing. If you aren’t familiar with the band, then this is a good place to start. And don’t miss the next Incident near you — there’s sure to be one pretty soon.