There are two ways to treat the String Cheese Incident’s brand-new nine-disc box set Treat or Treat. (Also available as a two-disc set; we were treated to the big dog.)
First, enjoy the beast for what it is: a big ol’ sprawling Hulaween party, chock full of wild-arse covers (some taken pretty seriously, others performed with tongues planted firmly in cheeks) and classic cuts of Cheese. AHHHWOOOOOOOOOO!
Or, you can see this as a one-stop overview of the band’s musical evolution over the period from 1998 to 2005. Trick or Treat begins with the days when Michael Travis was a one-man show on percussion (which is hard to believe when you listen – heck, even watching him live back then you’d end up saying “How many hands does he have?”) and Billy Nershi’s weapon of choice was his trusty ol’ Martin. By the ninth disc, we’re hearing the six-man Cheese, with Jason Hann joining Travis in the rhythm department, while jams were liberally flavored with dollops of electronica and Nershi wasn’t above strapping on an electric solid body if the moment called for it. We hear Kyle Hollingsworth stretch out and expand on the keys over the seven-year spread and Keith Moseley cue and guide things more with his bass lines as the group matures as a jam unit.
Early on, we’re treated to beautifully-recorded versions of early Cheese originals such as “Mouna Bowa,” “Rhythm of the Road,” and a 21-minute-plus version of “’Round The Wheel” from ’98. By the time 1999 rolls around, though, we begin to see more covers with Men at Work’s “Down Under,” the Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden,” and Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Exodus” woven between doses of Lester the beat poet. (I will say right here and now that covers of Bob Marley tunes usually come off as thin and pale to me; this version, however, is an exception.)
From there we get more theme-based: 2001’s Halloween show in New York featured a train ride ‘round the city with narrated tie-ins to everything from John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” (featuring members of the Tom Tom Club) and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” to a funked-out version of Miles Davis’ “So What” (it works!) and an out-of-nowhere “Shakedown Street” that completely ambushes the crowd, which proceeds to go apeshit.
2002’s show, which saw the String stage a mock awards show for folks like Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Freddie Mercury (see a trend there? That’s right: dead rock stars) pushed the limits of good taste, though it was done with love. Moments after declaring Jimi Hendrix the winner in the category of “Best Death by Throwing Up While Sleeping,” the Cheese rip into a roaring version of “Fire” which segues into “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” … no doubt, the man himself would’ve gotten a kick out of Michael Kang’s interpretation of his music on the electric mando.
My favorite cover of the bunch? A sweet version of Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” from 2004 – the perfect yin/yang to a twisted take on Country Joe’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” later in the same set (complete with Fish Cheer). The closer at the end of disc nine? Go ahead – guess. That’s right: a jammed-out “Thriller.” What do you think of that?
If you have ever seen SCI live, then you already know that they weren’t above wacky humor on any given night. Halloween was always just a chance for the rest of the world to catch up with them.
Trick or Treat fills the bag.
Brian Robbins’ new column is called “The Maine Line.”