Notes From The Road: This is my “Pete’s-eye view” feature on this site, with reports on interesting people and events I encounter in my travels.
Every so often, I get called to play with a rock band that wants some five-string banjo picking. It’s been quite interesting to take the stage with a lot of plugged-in instruments and drums, and project banjo sound into the mix.
One of the more popular touring bands these days is Colorado’s String Cheese Incident, all of whom like and play bluegrass in addition to their multi-faceted jam-rock. With Billy Nershi on flat-picked Martin guitar, and Michael Kang on mandolin and fiddle, the band even looks a little like a bluegrass band (never mind the keyboards and massive drum kit!).
Though they’re now filling large arenas even for multi-day stands, String Cheese still well remembers our common roots, like jamming in the campground at RockyGrass with the “big star from Hot Rize” joining in with “a bunch of nobodies”. I’m glad to say these guys still know their bluegrass and play it well.
This last March 22, last day of a three-day stand at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium, the opening act had to cancel a few days ahead, and SCI chose to open for themselves with an acoustic bluegrass set, hence the call from Keith Mosely, the bass player. Luckily, I was available, and Keith said “It’ll be mainly standards, and we’ll practice a little the day of the show.”
Which is exactly what happened. Sound check was 4pm for the 7pm start. There we were, on a big rock ‘n roll stage: stand-up bass, guitar, mandolin, and banjo (with Kyle on tasteful accordion). Travis, the drummer, had a single snare with brushes, and got to sit up front with the rest of us, instead of behind his usual wall of cymbals.
We ran through Dark Holler, Shenendoah Breakdown, Life’s Too Short, High on a Mountain, and some others. Then I noticed a white haired guy was sitting in and playing Travis’s drum. He was good! I looked a little harder and realized it was Bill Kreutzman, long-term drummer for the Grateful Dead. I had met him years ago (I mean *years* ago), and it was neat to see and hear him synching with the bluegrass beat. Later we compared notes on the days of the early Dead, with bluegrass and jug band music evolving into the band’s timeless sound. Bill was in Denver with his wife, presenting a show of his art, and really happy to be there, including some on-stage rocking out with SCI.
One nice new tech development in recent years has been the use of “ear monitors”. The system doesn’t use on-stage floor monitor speakers at all, but each musician wears in-ear headphones connected to a small receiver worn on the belt or in the back pocket. Instead of using cables, the sound is sent from the monitor board wirelessly, and each musician can have his own mix. While I’m still getting used to wearing the little earpieces and hearing everything through them, there is an excellent advantage: In these situations, I can use my favorite acoustic banjo (my Gibson Granada) into a microphone, and not risk feedback. Everyone on stage can hear me fine in their own headphones, and there are no loud speakers near us to play the sound into the mics, which is what causes feedback.
A few years ago I bought a Prucha Elban, a good acoustic-electric model, to deal with the feedback issue by not using a mic. I got good enough results, but more and more, the ear-monitor setups have allowed me to use my main banjo even when playing with loud bands in large venues. I like that the audience hears my banjo sound the same as when I perform in bluegrass mode, as I have for years.
Another thing I like about gigs like this is that many of the group’s fans have not heard much (or any) bluegrass before, and they’re enthusiastic and open to it. The first sounds of the banjo seem to send a stir through the audience. The sights and sounds of their rock heroes playing good bluegrass probably does more to build the bluegrass audience than anything. Earl Scruggs and Del McCoury are among the many great musicians that String Cheese chooses to open their shows or join them on stage. A first-rate cultural exchange program!
I admire these guys for using their power and influence for good causes, both musical and other. They’re quite “normal” in manner, as though not aware they’re rock stars. It makes it easy on someone in my position, to feel that I’m just playing music, not having to deal with a “star” scene.
With the crowd in place, we started the show with a tune of mine, the old jamming standby, Huckling the Berries. Michael and I started on just banjo and mando, and then the band came in strong behind Billy’s guitar break. These guys can pick! A fun time was had by all, with the one set over all too soon. After that, the band did some great rocking music, aided by Bill Kreutzman’s drumming, and another String Cheese Incident show went into the books — and right onto the internet, of course.
String Cheese fans, or anyone curious about this show or other SCI shows, can actually order CD copies from the web site www.sciontheroad.com. This show will be available in mid-May.