I didn't think trains still emitted that "clickety-clack" sound, being so streamlined and quick, but that sound lulls me to sleep as I watch lightning flutter across the prairie.
Rain spatters the side of the California Zephyr as I search my tightly stuffed pack for a blanket, digging through everything I think I'll need for the next week and a half. I'm on the trail of my favorite homestate band, whose intricate freeform jams and casually eloquent lyrics lead thousands to set out on the road each year.
We're all in search of the same thing: the funked-out, grassroots Saturday-night-in-a-small-town dance vibe that only the String Cheese Incident can provide.
I close my eyes and try to get comfortable against the cold window. I've still got nine states and more than a thousand miles between me and the Cheese, and it's going to be a long, long ride.
String Cheese Incident came to being in 1993, when bassist Keith Moseley, acoustic guitarist Billy Nershi, drummer Michael Travis and mandolin and fiddle player Mike Kang began swapping live bluegrass for lift tickets in Crested Butte. Within six months SCI was asked to play an opening slot at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and in 1996, jazz keyboardist and accordian player Kyle Hollingsworth joined the band. In the years since, Cheese has exploded, gaining a more rabidly devoted fan base than the five Colorado ski bums ever imagined possible.
Despite fame and fortune, they're still a bunch of regular, down-to-earth guys, with regular-size heads. It's not uncommon to bump into one of them cruising through the crowd before shows, and often they'll hang out on stage after a three, four or even five-hour performance, shaking hands and chatting with audience members.
On stage, the band encourages people to take off their shoes, get comfortable and introduce themselves to those around them. This good will -- known to insiders as "gouda vibes" -- transforms the crowd into a familiar extended family, reminiscent of Deadheads in the way that they'll drop anything and go anywhere for a hit of Cheese.
My friends and I feel more welcome, accepted and safe at Cheese shows than we do in our own homes. When the 2001 Spring Cheese tour dates were announced and we found that the last leg of the tour included Mobile, New Orleans and Memphis, there was no question: We were there.
Rhythm of the road
After planning flights that didn't work out, trying to find rides with other touring FOCs (Friends of Cheese) and seriously considering making the 2,500 mile-plus round trip in my 27-year-old, no-air-conditioning, bad-tranny-iffy-wiring Dodge Dart, I finally got down and begged the Higher Up for help two weeks before the Mobile show.
"Look in USA Weekend," He said. "Page 4. Under the Disney ad."
And there it was: Amtrak. I'd get to see the whole country, well, a lot of it anyway, for 200 bucks. My friends, who we'll call Stella and Patty, would fly from Colorado and drive down from New Jersey, respectively, and we would all meet up in Mobile, just in time for the first show.
That's how I found myself careening through the flat purple Nebraskan night, waking somewhere around Osceola, Iowa. As the sun broke through the hazy grey sky the country began to change, and I spent the next six hours glued to the window. I had never seen anywhere so flat, so fertile. Iowa was a never-ending stretch of fields, some being tilled by tiny figures on green tractors, some lying fallow, dotted with lone cottonwoods.
The houses and factories became thicker as we approached Chicago, where I changed trains. Twenty-four hours after leaving Denver, I was on board number 59, The City of New Orleans. I headed downstairs to the smoking car -- a stark, grey, plastic room offering nothing to break up the monotony of the dark night but conversation with strangers.
My Tibetan-print skirt and huge frame pack stood out in the heartland -- everyone wanted to know where the hippie girl was going and why. I explained to Kendall, an R & B singer, and an older man retired from making Budweiser frog commercials whose name I forgot, that I was following the String Cheese Incident, that I had come from Colorado and was headed all the way to Alabama. Kendall wanted to know what Cheese is like, and I tried to explain.
"Well, they're a kind of jam band, based in bluegrass, but they mix in modern jazz and world music, lots of funk, everything, really. Something along the lines of the Dead, but not so spacey, not so hippied out."
"What are the Dead?" he asked. He was serious. I passed him my Discman and let him listen to one of Cheese's recent shows at the Fillmore in Denver. (Cheese has an open taping policy, and fans trade shows like baseball cards.)
Kendall skipped through tracks to "MLT (My Latin Thing)," a funky, lilting instrumental. "This is the tightest drummer I've ever heard. I like these guys." He passed the headphones to the frog guy, who nodded his head in time.
Soon the Discman had made the rounds and Cheese had taken over the smoking car in an almost viral fashion. Dave, a 30-something farm boy from Carbondale took the headphones, smiling and tapping his foot in time. Kendall was discussing Trav's percussion with Tom, a jazz musician, and Dave No. 2 was saying to his new wife that maybe his band should do some Cheese covers.
Elizabeth, a 21-year-old student at Eastern Illinois University, asked if she could blow off finals and go on tour with me. An affluent-looking black businessman wanted to know if they ever used a horn section. Sean, a gangsta kid on his way home from his friend's funeral said he wasn't really into "hippie music" but he thought the Cheese was pretty funky.
Within a matter of minutes, my favorite little Colorado band had won a carload of new FOCs. I spent the next half-hour writing down album titles, tour dates, and Website addresses, then spent the rest of the night drinking and laughing with this group of travelers with which I had nothing in common with, except the rocking of the rails and stomachs growling for fresh, stanky Cheese.
In New Orleans' Union Station, things got a little hairy. My last reasonable acquaintance had caught her 10:30 p.m. Greyhound to Texas and I was alone.
Her exit, apparently, was an invitation for every drunk, stoned or otherwise unsavory character in the place to take a seat near me. I spent 10 minutes convincing a commercial fisherman from Pascagoula, Miss. that just because he thought I looked like Janis Joplin was not reason enough for me to sit on his lap. By the time I put out an ash can fire lit by his cigarette, I had had enough. I shouldered my too-heavy pack and headed outside.
Michael strolled up just as I pushed open the glass door; a tall, thin middle-aged figure dressed in black with a pained look on his face. The night was warm and sweet, but he seemed chilled. Still, he appeared to be a decent guy, sober, not too much of a mess, in no danger of becoming an arsonist, and we hovered near each other until the train arrived, an hour late.
When we finally got to Mobile, Michael walked me to my hotel, showing me the sights along the way. The sun was coming up as we walked to Polecat Bay, at the foot of Government Street, where merchant ships used to dock and sell their slave cargo. I walked into my room at 6 a.m. to find Stella and Patty strewn across the beds. I passed out cold, my journey just begun.
Trouble with the sweet stuff
The action on the sidewalk often provides half the fun of a Cheese show. Packed with dredlocked teenagers, earthen mamas, ski bums, and mountain climbing-types, it's the midway to a Cheese carnival, and Mobile was no exception. Vendors hawk grilled cheese sandwiches, handblown glass pipes, hemp hats, artwork, cold beer -- anything to make enough money to get to the next show. These "tour rats" are a continual presence surrounding the band and its fans.
Sometimes, in addition to under-the-table sales of pot or LSD, you'll find someone selling balloons full of nitrous oxide. Normally used as a dental anesthetic, when inhaled nitrous can cause not only a euphoric state but hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in the blood that can cause irreversible brain damage.
Concern over the use of nitrous, the proliferation of garbage, disorderly conduct and how it reflects on the band and its fans has prompted some FOCs to create Support Our Scene, or S.O.S. Members of the informal group act individually to discourage illegal activities at and around Cheese shows, and try to keep the events safe and clean.
"Our goal is to help the fan community grow in a way that is safe, friendly and healthy, and to leave a positive impression on communities through which we travel in order to be welcome to return in the future," said Bret Bailey, founder of S.O.S.
The band encourages S.O.S's efforts, though they are not officially associated with SCI.
String Cheese drummer Michael Travis says the band is concerned first and foremost with people feeling comfortable at their shows. "People are going to do their pre-show preparations, whatever they need to do to experience the show. We just hope they'll be honest with themselves about whether they're clear or not, if they can be responsible."
Drug use aside, SCI plans to continue encouraging the carnival ambiance at its shows.
"We want to make it a complete environment, bring more of a village atmosphere to the experience," said Trav. He also expressed the band's desire to play fewer indoor venues and more "big wilderness sites" like Horning's Hideout, a large open space area near Portland, Oregon where Cheese will end this year's summer tour with a three-day-long festival-style Incident.
The natural world figures largely into the Cheese experience. At last year's International Incident in Costa Rica, SCI raised $7,500 for a local environmental group. The amount was then matched by a Friend of Cheese, and the $15,000 was used to purchase a 4.5 acre corridor into Manuel Antonio Park, a primary migration route for the endangered titi monkey. For most Cheeseheads, going out of their way to boost their green karma is never out of the question.
Do you feel as Roman as I do?
The beach is blindingly white as we cruise down Highway 90 on our way to the next night's Incident in New Orleans. In Biloxi we look for a place to grab a bite, and there it is, the Cajun Buffet.
For just $6.99 we get a plate and instructions to eat as much as we want, a dangerous opportunity. Fried chicken, green tomatoes, okra, gizzards, black-eyed peas, red beans and rice, cornbread, gravy, stuffing, collard greens, sweet taters, watermelon ... everything I could have ever wanted from a southern kitchen is laid out under heat lamps, perfectly spiced and expertly blended.
Thank God Cajun Buffet had the foresight to build right across the street from the beach. We lie in the sun, letting our extended stomachs return to normal size, and listen to the waves crash on the shore. It's too decadent. Guilt begins to set in. Stella and I look at each other and consider whether we're having too much fun.
"Right," we say in unison, and turn our faces back toward the blazing Mississippi sun.
Three hours later we cruise into the Crescent City -- New Orleans.
If you've ever tried to maneuver a car down Bourbon Street you're an idiot and you won't try it twice. We crawl down the narrow lane, passing mimes, half-naked dancers, musicians, tourists, drunks -- the street is choked with bodies.
We arrive at our hotel to find that our sleeper sofa has been misplaced, leaving us with one double bed. This being the second weekend of Jazzfest, there is only one room available, possibly the only one in the city -- a junior suite offered to us at no additional cost. We'll take it.
Nighttime in Nawlins
A long, hot shower in the 50-square-foot Italian marble bathroom later, we step out into the steamy evening air.
During the two-night String Cheese gig, the Canal street sidewalk outside the Saenger Theater is a madhouse. Girls wearing fairy wings throw glitter into the air, a boy plays the djembe on the corner, and people without tickets try desperately to get into to the sold-out shows by holding up one finger and calling out like carnival barkers; "Who's got my extra? Kick it down so I can get down..."
Inside, the Saenger is palatial. Marble columns support ceilings painted with murals of cherubs and Greek gods, and the walls are colored in deep hues of red and purple. The 3,000 or so seats are upholstered with red velvet, and the carpet is thick and plush. Stone arches line the walls, recalling the Roman Colosseum, and the ceiling is a deep blue, starred and wide like the night sky.
The second night, some of the tickets for the show have been printed with the incorrect show time, and about 500 or so people show up two hours early. Rather than let them sit, Billy comes out and explains the situation. He says he'll play a few acoustic tunes, and then later the rest of the guys will come out and they'll play a proper two-set show.
During Billy's second song, Kang wanders out unannounced, and then a bit later, Keith. Trav slips behind his kit when no one is looking, and finally Kyle comes on, wearing his Magic Pants. (A word on Kyle's Magic Pants: If he's donned the silver, purple, blue and green sequined patchwork trousers, it's guaranteed that he is planning on going completely nuts during the show. He has given up any sense of propriety and is ready to get down. If you catch Kyle wearing the pants, consider yourself blessed.)
If String Cheese came to me and asked me to make up a set list, the second night in New Orleans would have been it. Among all my other favorite original songs was a dairy-rich cover of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," a version that drove the crowd into a frenzied state.
I was a "rail rider" that night, claiming my place right in front of the stage and refusing to give it up. Up front is a tight squeeze, but once you introduce yourself to the people who have already met your flying elbows, it's a great place to be. You can see the bemused expressions on the band members' faces, the complete unity of musicians who have played together for a long time and have no plans to stop, because they are loving every single second of it.
Behold, the power of Cheese
A Cheese crowd in motion is a phenomenon, the way the colorful dancers seem to thump and twist in a writhing mass, a sea of twirling fingers and shaking hips. It's hard to not be carried away by the expertly executed jams, the ebbs and flows of a sound entirely in touch with the audience. You move your body fast and hard, until you reach a point where you just can't take it anymore, and you, along with thousands of others, let out a howl or a scream or a "Right On!" -- something to release the tension.
But the boys don't stop. Kang holding a thin, high note on his electrified mandolin, carries your body over an invisible edge. Kyle, grimaces and maniacally pounds the keys; Travis beats his drums, his hair flying as he moves his body like a savage possessed. Keith's deep, dictatorial bass funk forces you to plant your feet and rock your hips harder than you thought healthy, and Billy plays a crashing wave of acoustic notes that make you wiggle your fingers and curl your toes while the sounds bubble over you.
The music takes your body over, building from your feet up until there's nothing left to do but violently shake every part of yourself, ending with your head, like a dog shaking off rain. No matter how tired you are, how much your feet hurt, how thirsty you are, you can't stop. Give it up, you're a String Cheese junkie.
I fought the law
Driving north from New Orleans on Highway 55, the air is thick with the scent of magnolia blossoms. Solid ground replaces the vivid green algae of the swamps, and purple wildflowers carpet the rolling hills. Through McComb, Bogue Chitto, Brookhaven and Hazlehurst, the lovely, dark, wet woods of Mississippi fly past the windows as we speed toward Memphis, apparently a little too quickly, judging by the flashing lights in the rearview.
"Alright girls, hide your goodies," says Patty, cool as a refrigerated cucumber. I take the voodoo doll from the rearview mirror and kill the Grateful Dead. The officer walks up to the window and asks if we know how fast we were going.
"Probably about 80, sir; I know, we were going too fast. I'm really sorry," Patty says, reeking of grace and charm. He asks to see her license, and as she gives it to him, she pulls out her New Jersey PBA card and says, "Will this help?"
The card reads:
HONORARY SPECIAL DEPUTY SHERIFF
The person to whom this card is issued is dedicated to driver safety and the preservation of law and order. The bearer pledges his or her support of law enforcement throughout the United States of America. Property of Bergen County Sheriff's Department.
Patty got it from a judge when she was working as a waitress. The officer studies it. "Are you a deputy or something?"
"Oh, no. But my father is." Patty's father is a longshoreman. "He's just about to retire though. He's been with the sheriff's department for, wow, all of my life."
"Really? I'm just about to retire too," says the officer, who tells us his name is Carl.
"Oh yeah? Good for you. My Dad is really looking forward to it." Patty deserves an Oscar. Carl is eating this up with a long-handled spoon. "Is there anything you can do, you know, about the ticket?" Patty asks, honey dripping all over the seat. "I'm really a very good driver."
"I'm sure you are..." Carl pauses through this brief moral dilemma. "Look, give me a call," he points out his number on the ticket, "when you get home and I'll let you know what I decide. Y'all be careful."
"Thank you so much, you are such a sweetheart." I think Carl is blushing. As we drive off, Stella and I stare at Patty.
"What?" she says in her broad Jersey accent.
Stella is really amused by the performance. "I cannot believe you did that. What if he had checked or something?"
"Oh, he wouldn't have. He loved us." I'm glad Patty is so confident, because I don't know if Mississippi bail bondsmen take traveler's checks.
165,000 people crowd the Beale Street Music Festival, held in Tom Lee Park, a 33-acre swath of land between the Mississippi River and the street made famous by the blues.
It's more of a swarm than a crowd, as bodies push against one another in search of concessions, bathrooms and one of four stages. Sunday, the last day of the three-day event and the day Cheese is scheduled to play, also features performances by the Black Crowes, Bob Dylan, Blues Traveler, Willie Nelson and Sonic Youth. Out of over 60 acts, the String Cheese Incident is the only band scheduled for two sets.
The tour ender is mellow compared to New Orleans, and the boys play straight through the set break. An enormous portion of the crowd has never seen nor heard of SCI, and it's strange to see the hippie kids outnumbered by drunken cowboys and metalheads. Despite the weird Who-Shot-J.R. atmosphere, Cheese gains a lot of exposure and good number of new fans. They're irresistible. Having already possesed the West, SCI is slowly claiming the Deep South.
After catching Dylan and the Crowes, we have to face reality. It's time to go home to the cold high mountains. I hear a rumor that Cheese might be playing a small bar on Beale Street after the fest, but it turns out to be untrue. There's no denying the fun is over.
The mayhem of the festival is everywhere, in the form of garbage, broken bottles, half-eaten ribs, and on a side street, a spilled truckload of crawfish crushed into the pavement. I walk through the damp Memphis night, weaving my way through drunken revelers, down glistening empty streets, past police barricades. I pass the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was murdered, his car still parked outside. My body hurts and my eyes ache. My stomach's growling and my pockets are empty. There's nothing left to do but pack up and head home.
My friends and I long ago decided that life is really just a series of uphill climbs and downhill slides -- coasting off the satisfaction that one live music show brings you and then riding the anticipation of the next one to come along. As long as you keep your dance card full, everything will always come out right in the end.
Cheese's summer tour isn't so far off, and we've got the past week and a half to think on for a while. It'll be hard, but we'll get by.