Kick out the jams


April 20, 2001



What makes a good jam?

Readers of this column may know that I'm generally not a fan of sprawling, unfocused instrumental forays into the great unknown. But propulsive, hypnotizing, spontaneous psychedelic excursions . . . well, no musical experience can be more transcendent, in the hands of the right avatars.

Two of the greats are coming to Chicago in the next few days, but only one could be considered a conventional "jam" band. Building on the success of two shows at Navy Pier last summer, Colorado's String Cheese Incident quickly sold out the Aragon. It stands poised to capitalize on years of hard work by filling the hole left by Phish's sabbatical and Dave Matthews' move toward the middle of the road.

Meanwhile, England's lovably eccentric "Dr." Alex Patterson, a k a the Orb, has resurfaced after a four-year silence with a brilliant new album called "Cydonia." Working with a group of collaborators who record for his own label (, he's continuing a legacy of mind-blowing performances that comprise rock's most inspired merger of live instrumentation and electronic wizardry since mid-'70s Pink Floyd.

Formed in Boulder in 1993, the String Cheese Incident--mandolinist-violinist Michael Kang, guitarist Bill Nershi, bassist Keith Moseley, keyboard player Kyle Hollingsworth and percussionist Michael Travis--have followed in the patchouli-scented path of countless other "Baby Dead" bands, worshipping at the shrine of St. Jerry and building a devoted following for its mix of bluegrass, funk, rock, jazz and world beat.

On its new album, "Outside Inside" (which, like all of its releases, was issued on the band's own label, Sci Fidelity), the group worked with Steve Berlin of Los Lobos in an effort to deliver more sharply honed and radio-friendly tunes. But unlike the Dave Matthews Band, it hasn't neglected the love of experimentation that won its burgeoning following in the first place.

"We're really a multifaceted band," Moseley says. "We're equally as interested in honing a well-crafted studio album as we are in taking the music out in a live performance to completely uncharted territory. Those are two very different aspects of our band, and we enjoy each of them.

"The psychedelic part of it is hard for me to put a finger on. The more the band plays together, the more we become intuitive with each other onstage, and the more we're able to think as a single unit. When we get into that mind-set of really creating as a single unit instead of five people, then sometimes we almost begin to channel a higher energy or tap into something bigger than the five of us. That's when you feel that the magic is happening."

Spoken like a true hippie. But what elevates SCI from other bands of its ilk is the musicians' dexterity with exotic rhythms. Rather than just riding that lazy faux-jazz hippie shuffle groove for 20 minutes of instrumental wanking, a typical Cheese tune can wind its way through Calypso, African and salsa rhythms before settling into a good ol' countryish hoedown.

With an obvious hole in the jam-band pantheon, does SCI feel it's been earmarked by fans to fill the breach?

"That's hard to say," Moseley says. "Phish taking a break is definitely a big topic of conversation, but it will really be summertime before we see any evidence of the Phish fans looking for something to do and checking us out. There's always been some crossover, of course, but to us, it just feels like the snowball continues to grow as we push it back and forth across the country. At this point, with every push, it's growing quite a bit."

In contrast, Patterson feels as if he's been stuck in neutral for the last four years. The Orb spent most of its career recording for Island, but the label that Bob Marley helped put on the map was swallowed in a series of corporate mergers a few years back, leaving Patterson feeling "like a pea without a pod."

"Cydonia" was finished two years ago, but it was only recently released by the new parent corporation Universal, about whom Patterson has nothing good to say. "I hope to be dropped soon," he chirps.

Since he first broached the mainstream in 1990 with the Steve Reich-powered single "Little Fluffy Clouds" (a track that was revived in 1998 when it appeared in a Volkswagen Beetle commercial), Patterson has stood second only to Moby as the most recognizable face in techno. But his popularity and longevity have hurt him: The Orb is no longer considered hip in the fad-conscious dance world, even though "Cydonia" is one of its strongest albums.

To his credit, Patterson couldn't care less about his place in the techno pantheon. "We've all got our little niche, and nobody's ever really come anywhere close to what the Orb can do in electronic music," he says. "Every album has been an experiment for us, rather than a need to make cash and cash in on what they call success or whatever. We've never stayed with the same formula."

The Orb also holds the distinction of being the most galvanizing "electronica" act that I've ever seen in concert. At the Riviera Theatre a few years back, Patterson "played" turntables and sampler while a partner manned a 24-track mixing board and a live bassist and drummer kept the rhythms fluid and ever-changing. At the same time, a massive light show helped transport listeners to a distant world that existed only in Patterson's fevered imagination.

The fabled Fillmore West couldn't have been any trippier during the Summer of Love.

For the Metro show, Patterson promises an equally transcendent four- or five-hour musical voyage, with various side projects comprised of him and his collaborators opening for the Orb per se, and the night ending with the good doctor behind the turntables. Be prepared to tune in, turn it up and jam on.