The String Cheese Incident: Rhythm of the Road: Volume 2, Live in Las Vegas Album Review

Arguably the first live rock and roll record was Got Live If You Want It! by The Rolling Stones. Released in England in 1965, it contained just six songs (interestingly all covers, no originals). Its sound is raw and ragged (it is said to have been recorded from a microphone hanging from the balcony though some overdubs were apparently added at some unknown point). Live music had been recorded before this of course, most famously by John Lomax in the 1930s who roamed the countryside recording local musicians. Fans were secretly recording rock concerts from pretty much the beginning and passing them around like sacred artifacts. It’s surprising to me that it took so long for an official live album to hit the shelves, and more surprising still that it took until the 1970s for it to become a regular thing.

For a long time it seems that most rockers were willing to put out at least one live album (or perhaps more if they stay together for decades) but that there wasn’t really much thought put into them, nor were they considered more than a novelty in the industry. As an avid collector of bootlegs (never pay for them though, just connect with like-minded folks and trade), it’s crazy to me that live albums weren’t regularly released.

Recently this has changed. More and more artists are recording their concerts and allowing fans to order a copy right after the show ends. Still others are digging into their vaults and releasing remastered versions of classic gigs. The Grateful Dead have understood this for years, having released somewhere along 100 different concerts from their storied career, but it’s only been the last few years that everyone else seems to have gotten the memo – that is rock fans want to hear their favorite bands play live, even if it’s on tape.

It’s such a no-brainer to do this as the recordings already exist, are fairly easy to clean up, and can be released with minimum fuss (no need to do a full on ad campaign, just put it up on your website) for small amounts of cash. In return, you get the love of your fans (and make a few in the process) plus earn a few easy bucks for something you’ve already played.

I’m thrilled to see more and more bands releasing more and more live albums. Which brings us to Rhythm of the Road: Volume 2, Live in Vegas. The String Cheese Incident loosely fall into the category of jam band, though they come via folk and bluegrass pathways and have picked up bits of funk, jazz, and the blues along the way. With the jam, they are no strangers to creating unique and incredible live shows. They live through improv, making it up as they go along. As such, each individual show (and recordings of those shows) are completely different, entities unto themselves. Unlike any number of other artists where the setlists are static and the performances the same, a String Cheese Show is like a psychedelic snowflake – each one different, strange and electric.

Since the spring of 2002, the band has released every single concert they’ve performed via their independent record label. Initially, they were selling CD sets, but since 2004, they’ve been sold through their website in MP3 and FLAC format. Collectively these sets are known as On the Road. Rhythm of the Road consists of more official releases of what the band considers their most important and celebrated concerts in pristine remastered editions. They are not exactly prolific with these releases as the first one came out in 2010 and we’re just now getting Volume 2. As the title states, this one consists of the best songs from a two-night run in Las Vegas in 2001. It’s three disks, and roughly three hours of classic Cheese.

I must confess I’m not a full-on Cheesehead. (That’s what die-hard fans call themselves, right?) I have a couple of their albums and a few bootlegs and enjoyed them, but they are not a band I return to often. It’s interesting that this show comes from 2001 as that’s right around the time I was (briefly) really into them. When I heard this was coming out, I jumped at the chance to give it a listen hoping it might stoke the (now dormant) fires.

Mostly, it hits all the right spots. Though at three hours, it’s a bit more than I can handle. My first listen came at home on a Saturday morning and somewhere during hour two I kept looking at the track list going, “Really? There can’t be that much left.” Subsequent listens have come in the car where it gets broken up into 15- to 20-minute intervals between stops to and from the office and other jobs. I reckon that’s about the perfect way to listen to something like this.

As mentioned the Cheese are an eclectic amalgamation of genres and they work best in their folk/bluegrass and jazz traditions. When they bring in the blues and hard rock, it’s not nearly as effective. When they go full-on jam-band mode. I tune out. As a dedicated Deadhead, I’m no stranger to the jam, but it works best for me when they keep the rough skeleton of the song intact. I want something to hang the musical meat on. When all signs of the song their playing disappear and we head into total improv mode, my mind wanders away and I completely stop paying attention to the music. With four songs stretching out over 15 minutes, there were several times during this set that I found myself slipping away from listening mode and moving into pondering the bigger questions of the universe, like “what’s for dinner?”

But when they stayed somewhere within the reaches of Earth’s orbit and kept some semblance of the song intact, I was right with them, shaking my (metaphorical) ass off. On songs like “San Jose’” and “Cedar Laurels,” the band is tight, yet loose. Playing the songs with verve yet able to cut loose and go where the muse takes them. They bring out some horns (from opening act Karl Denson) for “Black and White” and a cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” and the party is truly started.

The third disk is when they get funky and I get bored. That may change with more listens and perhaps a change of setlists (starting with disk three would likely improve things for me drastically) but by the time I get there (even with breaks in the car), I’m ready to move onto something else. It does start with a really fantastic version of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” but from there on I just can’t keep up.

It’s utterly fantastic to see more bands releasing live music on the regular. The String Cheese Incident has been on board for more than a decade creating thousands of fans in the process. It’s cooler still that not only do they release everything they play, but that they can go back into the vaults and dig out these little treasures and give it the spotlight it deserves.

I may not be a full Cheesehead, but I can dig Rhythm of the Road: Volume 2, Live in Las Vegas and highly recommend it to anybody interested in great live music. Just pace yourself, that’s a lot of music to digest.

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Mat Brewster

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