The Cheeseman cometh

Michael Travis’ trio Zuvuya outshines his String Cheese Incident roots

January 02, 2003

The first time I saw the String Cheese Incident was at Woodstock ’99, also known as the one where people got all f’d up and set stuff on fire. In a festival full of hits and misses, the String Cheese Incident’s performance stood out. I fell in love. Who wouldn’t? It was all the bouncy, dancey bluegrass, salsa and funk-rock you could stand—catchy as could be but without the too-common layer of Velveeta on top to drown the musical casserole in mush.

Then something unexpected happened, in the course of only a couple years. The String Cheese Incident blew up. One moment the band was playing to a small but dedicated crowd at New York’s Colgate University, and by the time the nation was tiring of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” they were headlining at Madison Square Garden.

I have never been one to believe that a favorite band’s suddenly “making it” is a bad thing. Inevitably, though, some snob will tell you that “the scene isn’t the same” or “the people just aren’t there for the music anymore.” All this may be true, but the purposeful finger-crossing that one’s favorite act remain in obscurity is selfish, in my opinion. After all, if you like something, shouldn’t you want others to discover the pleasure you’ve found?

So I was happy for the five gents from Colorado upon their newfound success. Many speculated that this success was largely due to the two-year Phish hiatus, which may have led dreadlocked Trustafarians nationwide to seek out another band to follow—and quick!—before they actually had time to ask themselves “What the hell am I doing with my life?” As for me, I was convinced (and still am) that String Cheese earned its success through musical talent and amazing stage energy.

Unfortunately, as String Cheese grew in popularity, the band began highlighting more Phishy jam-rock sounds, rather than using its success to mold the mainstream (jamstream?) towards intricate bluegrass and salsa numbers. At a recent Adams Center performance, the band played two bluegrass songs. Two. This, from a band whose repertoire was once almost entirely bluegrass. The arena rockers just didn’t do it for me, nor did the extended slow-funk jams. It wasn’t that I wanted String Cheese to remain static; a band that stops growing is doomed. I just didn’t like the direction String Cheese had chosen to grow. Suddenly, I found myself sounding like one of those crabby music snobs that I warned you about earlier. “It’s just not the same,” I thought. Uggh!

Fortunately for those like myself, there is now a portal to the String Cheese Incident of yesteryear: Zuvuya. The trio is the side-project of String Cheese drummer extraordinaire Michael Travis. The name is derived from the Mayan term representing the “universal wave of energy which surrounds us all.” In Zuvuya, Travis’ percussive talents are blended with those of Xavier Greene, who plays drums as well, but also offers some incredible finger-style guitar work, spanning the gamut from bluegrass to funk to folk to Celtic to salsa.

Earlier this year, Boulder drummer and dulcimer mastermind Jamie Janover joined up to make Zuvuya a trio. The results are breathtaking, combining engaging rhythms with some of the most enchanting guitar you’ve ever heard.

In many ways, the band is reminiscent of old-school String Cheese Incident, but this is far more than a rehashing of old sounds and ideas. Rather, each man in Zuvuya brings something new to the table at each show they play. Travis has long been String Cheese’s most overlooked asset, but he’s allowed free range to shine with Zuvuya. Importantly and impressively, Travis, the band’s “big name,” is not a ball hog. Janover and (especially) Greene take center stage much of the time, which is good news for Joe Concert-goer. After all, you can only listen to drum solos for so long, as Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum taught the world—painfully. If Travis and Zuvuya were merely a really talented drum circle, it might be more satisfying to go start your own and cut out the middle man. But Zuvuya’s dynamic instrumentation promises music to move both body and mind, and, as if that wasn’t enough good news, you probably won’t have to walk around holding up a finger in a cold parking lot for a ticket, either.

In contrast to SCI’s impersonal Adams Center performance, Zuvuya plays at a much more intimate venue: the Blue Heron. Catch ’em at 10 p.m. on Wed., Jan. 8. Call the Heron at 543-2525 for info.

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