The String Cheese Incident's appearance at the Wiltern Theatre on Friday began with a white-turbaned woman leading the audience in a yoga exercise, arms above heads, to "gather energy . . . and throw it onto the stage."
Opening act Paul Pena told the crowd in his set that the last time he was in Los Angeles, he wandered the streets alone with no place to stay.
The contrasts in their music and histories are just as striking. String Cheese is five self-described Colorado ski bums who are now the rising stars of the hippie jam-band scene originally built by the Grateful Dead. Pena is a San Francisco scene veteran with a story full of odd and often sad twists. The blind singer-guitarist has finally been recognized via an Oscar-nominated documentary of his explorations of Tuvan throat singing ("Genghis Blues") and for the recent, long-belated release of his terrific 1973 album "New Train."
Yet, when they joined up at the end of SCI's first set Friday and played "Jet Airliner," the Steve Miller hit written by Pena, the triumphant energy onstage exceeded what the yoga generated.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 9, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Band member--A review of a String Cheese Incident concert in Monday's Calendar misspelled the last name of band member Michael Kang.
The song, in Pena's hands, is a little slower and much sexier than Miller's familiar version--almost something Otis Redding could have sung. String Cheese had, to that point in the concert, shown great accomplishment in its free-flowing excursions through bluegrass, country-rock and funk, with ace solo work from Michael Chang on violin, mandolin and electric guitar, Bill Nershi on acoustic guitar and Kyle Hollingsworth on keyboards. But the music had lacked depth. With Pena seated center stage, SCI channeled the spirit of Muscle Shoals soul.
Pena had already in his brief opening set not only proven his worthiness to play Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail," but demonstrated his personalization of the blues with both his '70s song craft and his more recent application of the haunting throat singing to blues songs.
After the teaming, SCI seemed inspired, with its own material (showing additional African and Latin influences) and such fare as Peter Gabriel's shimmering "Shaking the Tree" and Herbie Hancock's fusion-funk classic "Chameleon" adding richness to the band's sometimes too-modest ambitions.