String Cheese Incident- The Mothership, Tacoma WA 3/21/98

It had been a really rough couple of weeks at work. In the last two weeks, I left after midnight 6 days, after 3 AM 4 times. And yet, on Friday, when I burned the potential Golden Master cd's of German and Japanese Outlook 98, there was something powerful there. I had the only copy of a program that thousands of people are likely to use and with a few keystrokes I could have, if so inspired, destroyed the whole thing (well other than the backups, but let me have my delusions of grandeur). Other than trying to hold them hostage for a bit (I want a ship-it award damnit), I resisted the temptation and passed them on. A chapter of my work life over.

To reduce some of my stress over the week, I was talked into seeing String Cheese Incident in the Mothership down in Tacoma. The Mothership is a new venue that seems to have somewhat of an identity crisis. It comes across in their ads as a Hammerjacks type place. They promise a pulsating light outside the place to help you find it. Their ads all mention the sound and light extravaganza. Rather than Hammerjacks' metal fare though, early on they were booking hippie jam bands. Oh well, it shouldn't be hard to find at least we figured.

WA Route 99 (nee US 99) was at one time the major north/south route in the west. Before I-5 was built, people used it to drive from southern California, all the way to the Canadian border. Its importance is reflected in that I-5 doesn't become BC 5 when you cross into Canada; it becomes BC 99. Much like US 1 on the east coast, it now has been surpassed by the Interstate. Also, at least in the Seattle/Tacoma/Everett area, it's become the strip mall hell that any driver of US 1 would know immediately. Cheap motels, Circut Cities, gas stations (one selling gas as low as 89 cents/gallon) line the once proud throughfare. In northern Seattle, the road has fallen so far that there are signs announcing that it is a "Drug and Prositution Watch area". Some vestiges of its former glory remain further south of that when it first becomes a luge course, then plunges through a tunnel, emerging on the other side on a viaduct. One of my favourite sunrise drives is to start out in the south part of the urban hell area, go through the obstacle course, and get off at the West Seattle bridge. When I escape from the tunnel and see the skyline to my left, the Sound to my right, and Mt Rainier straight ahead, it reminds me once again why I am lucky to live here.

Alas, though the Mothership was not located by the cool part of WA 99. Since the entire rest of the road is extremely homogeneous to the point where you never are quite sure if you're in Montlake Terrace or Fife, we decided to just aim for the huge dome and the pulsating light advertised. This is how we managed to pass it. The Mothership looks like a Elk's Lodge with a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome stuck on top of it. The pulsating light was not yet operational, neither were the cool looking games in the lower level. It looks like it was up to the bands to entertain us.

String Cheese Incident has a little quirk; perhaps it should be called a gimmick. They provide hula hoops made out of tubing for the audience. I had never used a hula hoop in my life, but figured that this would be as good as any night to start. My first few attempts were miserable. My philosophy on physical activities is simple, "Never use subtlety when brute force is an option." I learned how to play pool at Bard where the standard advice for any shot was, "Hit it hard." When I played tennis, I was happier with shots that went over the fence than I was with a well placed serve. Hula hooping could surely be conquered by exerting insane amounts of energy, right? Well I had a night to find out.

Checking to make sure that my deck was enjoying the patch kindly provided by the gods of the soundboard, I went up to the front of the stage to see Keller Williams perform, hula hoop in hand. When he started playing a interesting version of Brick in the Wall (part 1), I was bummed that we only had 20 minutes of tape for the opener. When that was followed with one with a chorus of "4:20. 24/7. 365," I discovered that the lack of tape might not be a bad thing. By this point I was receiving hula hooping lessons. I managed to keep the thing going for 10-15 seconds on end, but that was about it. "Don't think about it so much," my instructor advised. Zen and the art of hula hooping.
me trying to hula hoop

Less than 5 minutes after Keller finished, the Incident was on stage. They first joked that they were excited to be playing the Tacoma Dome this early in their career, but it looked much bigger from the highway. Then they started to play.

I don't know quite how to describe their music. It's a weird cross between bluegrass, jazz, and 1974 Grateful Dead. About halfway through the first set, they did this seemless transition from a spacey jam into one that raged and raged hard, like the Dead going from Space into the middle of The Other One, like Phish segueing Cities into Llama. My jaw joined the hula hoop in hitting the floor then.

During the set break Keller came back on. In addition to hearing a Phish cover for the first time (Run Like an Antelope), he did an acoustic guitar version of The Eleven and a reggae High Time. I reflected on the nature of the Dead and of their songs. There's something timeless about a lot of them. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the rotation ended up as campfire songs; I expect Uncle John's Band and Franklin's Tower to outlive me in one form or another.

String Cheese came out for their second set. I finally decided to give up on the hoop for the night (but not before buying some of those way cool Pedestrian Crossing stickers where the pedestrian is using a hula hoop) and bop around for a bit. I got to do something that I haven't been able to do at a Phish show in years and years. I walked up right against the stage, and watched the players interact. Michael Kang in particular blew me away. Switching from violin to mandolin, he frequently managed to get that sound. Jerry got that sound. Trey gets that sound. The one where you hear 3 or 4 chords and you're plunged into ecstasy. I'm not enough of a musician to know where they rank in terms of technical ability, but on an emotional level, he was hitting all of the right buttons for me.

April 4th 1988 and October 29th 1989. Those are two dates that changed my world. I saw a band and decided that I had to see them more again and again. Most of my favourite memories are from events inspired by those two nights. Will March 21st 1998 be added to that list? I don't know. What I do know is how long it's been since I've seen a new band playing their own material and been stunned. When I woke up I was sore from the exertion of the night before. That can only be seen as a good sign.

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