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String Cheese biography
Before he awkwardly replaced David LaFlamme in IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY, Greg Bloch had his own shot at early seventies psych-folk fame with STRING CHEESE, a band whose early promise but quick demise was undoubtedly influenced by the fortunes of their label (Wooden Nickel), which started to unravel even before marquee act STYX began to be courted by A&M Records.

Blessed with a lead vocalist (Sally Smaller) much in the vein of IABD's Patti Santos, the band's music bears a striking resemblance to many of the Haight-Ashbury stable of psychedelic and folk bands of the late sixties and early seventies. The group also featured drummer John Maggi, whose prior group IOWA BY THE SEA became a footnote for being the band that launched Michael Wood's career with the seventies folk-rock band AMERICA.

The band's debut was heralded with a feature article in Billboard magazine announcing Jerry Weintraub's collaboration of his Wooden Nickel label with RCA (the band was mistakenly referred to as a "West Coast" act despite both them and the label being anchored in Chicago). Weak sales and scant promotion left the group with little choice but to fade away in 1973. 12-string guitarist Lawrence W. Wendelken would go on to a studio production career including film credits, and Bloch landed a stint with MARK-ALMOND in addition to his one album with IABD; the rest of the group would fade into musical obscurity.

Another lost prog folk band of the early seventies, STRING CHEESE nonetheless left behind one great album proving that quality psych-laced folk rock was not limited to San Francisco circa 1971.

>>Bio by Bob Moore (aka ClemofNazareth)<<

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3.09 | 15 ratings
String Cheese

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 String Cheese by STRING CHEESE album cover Studio Album, 1971
3.09 | 15 ratings

String Cheese
String Cheese Prog Folk

Review by Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer

3 stars 'String Cheese' - String Cheese (60/100)

Folk music, I think, has always been uniquely disposed towards feelings of dissent. There's a down-to-earth heartiness about plain guitars and organic instrumentation that's quick to comfort in times of trouble. So it was, at least, in that golden age of popular music, where war and Communism flourished on one side of the world, while rock masterpieces were being recorded on the other. Chicago's String Cheese were never responsible for any of these masterpieces. Much less than that, in fact; they only ever released this self-titled LP before a series of pressures (most notably troubles on the part of the label, and nagging lack of sales) impelled them to split shortly after. Consequently, they've long since lost any claim to the pubic consciousness. At most, you may find their work relegated to some distant corner of the collection of hardcore vinyl collectors.

String Cheese came into being at the height of anti-Vietnam dissent, and though their lyrics aren't explicit about it, their music is audibly motivated by an empathy-driven anxiety. Although a better expert than I should be able to name a bunch of their San Franciscan peers by way of comparison, by my own listening history, String Cheese almost remind me of legendary British freaks Comus, provided you distilled every bit of weirdness from the mix. Though String Cheese pack a healthy dose of chamber folk into their protest formula, and backed by a strong feminine voice in Sally Smaller, the music rarely dares to grasp me as much as I would hope from arrangements of this calibre. String Cheese had a fine sound to them, with stellar musicianship at that, but their writing fell short of creating any powerful songs that might still be worthy of recognition.

If String Cheese are meant to be interpreted as a progressive-leaning protest band, I'm not hearing any songs a generation could have marched behind in solidarity. What I am hearing, instead, is a decently consistent set of music with great arrangements that sound limited by their predictable framing. String Cheese made themselves out to be folk-rockers on the arse end of flower power, but it sounds to me like that formula wasn't exploiting their abilities to the fullest. Sally Smaller's vocals are comfortably ethereal, and could have used an even greater showcase on the album. Though their unambitious songwriting never serves to provoke in a transgressive way, String Cheese establish ways of broadening the sound regardless. Gregory Bloch's ubiquitous electric violin occasionally sounds like a full-fledged string section unto itself, and the soft arrangements closing off the record with "Coming" prove how great their music could be if only they loosened the songwriting's grip on the music a bit.

Smaller, along with frontman Lawrence Wendelken lead the band confidently, and though they flirt with what is tantamount to protest cliches ("Woke up this morning..." etc.) I appreciate the way they channelled their anxieties towards aggression in a poetic way that clouds the direct meaning of typical protest anthemry. Nonetheless, their wordplay is as challenging as String Cheese ever get. They're straightforward enough to label their songwriting simple, but not so effective with their simplicity to have had hit potential. The music is well-intentioned, but I feel String Cheese were caught somewhere in between being a higherbrow chamber folk group, and a psych-tinged rabble rousers. Either route could have paid off, but the two don't mix here, and the album's left feeling a little flat as a result.

 String Cheese by STRING CHEESE album cover Studio Album, 1971
3.09 | 15 ratings

String Cheese
String Cheese Prog Folk

Review by ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator Prog Folk Researcher

3 stars I must admit having never heard of these guys until recently. I came across them in a roundabout fashion after picking up an original vinyl copy of the ‘It’s A Beautiful Day…Today’ album at a small used record shop while visiting upstate New York. Turns out that album isn’t very good since it is the only IABD album that does not include founder/violinist David LaFlamme, who was briefly out of the lineup due to a dispute over royalty payments. Instead, the group added Greg Bloch to play electric violin, although for some reason despite being listed in the album credits, he is the only band member whose picture is not included on either the cover nor the inside liner. Bloch would become more well-known after appearing on PFM’s ‘Jet Lag’ disc later in the decade, but at the time he was pretty much unknown.

Turns out he had done a bit of recording before his stint with IABD though; in fact, his band String Cheese was the first marquee act for the Chicago-based label Wooden Nickel, which would become more well-known as the label that signed (and then lost) another Chicago-based band – Styx. String Cheese also featured drummer John Maggi, who a year earlier had recorded an album with the band Iowa By The Sea, a group that also featured a young Michael Wood enroute to his commercially successful career as a replacement guitarist for the soft rock band America.

So that’s the historical background for the band. I learned this while seeking the album out of curiosity after the ‘It’s A Beautiful Day…Today’ disc failed to capture my interest. I have to say that his record is quite a bit more progressive and interesting than that one as well. The music is very period-appropriate, meaning the songs are full of somewhat na´vely earnest vocals, extended keyboard forays of all sorts, and faux spiritual psychedelic leanings. Then again I like all of those things, so for me this is a pretty easy album to get into.

The strongest assets of the band are easily Bloch’s electric violin paying and Sally Smaller’s vocals. Bloch isn’t quite a virtuoso (there are the occasional slightly off-notes and a few awkward interactions with the guitarist, mostly toward the end of the record), but he’s pretty darn close for the most part. Smaller has one of those early seventies gorgeous contemporary folk voices with just enough bite to it that the listener is left with a distinct impression she spun a few Big Brother, Jefferson Airplane, Babe Ruth and Mama Lion albums for inspiration back in the day. And speaking of Babe Ruth, the brief hard rock number “We Share” sounds a bit like that band, while the rest of the songs are much more folk-oriented. Guitarist Larry Wendelken harmonizes on vocals quite a bit as well, so there is some depth and range to the singing that sets them somewhat apart from bands like most of those mentioned above.

I lived in Chicago for several years back in the eighties, and I have to say there is a distinct, easy sound in this band that seems to be present in an awful lot of bands from that city. I’m not sure why – perhaps the influence of urban blues that permeates the music scene in the city and lower south side. Or maybe it’s just that Midwest mood that seem much more grounded than the heavier psych and drug-addled sounds that emanated from the heart of San Francisco around the same time.

Most of the tunes here are rather short, with only the jam-session “Empty Streets” exceeding six minutes. “Soul of Man” runs a little over five minutes, but this one is quite tepid, laconic and steeped in folk meandering. Bloch’s violin is particularly dark and poignant on this song. I’m a Kansas fanboy as well, and his playing here and on “Woke up this Morning” remind me an awful lot of the more mature and measured playing Robbie Steinhardt did on that band’s twilight release “Somewhere to Elsewhere”. That’s a strong compliment, by the way.

The closing instrumental “Coming” shows what the band was capable of in terms of complex arrangements and solid interplay between their keyboards, 12-string guitar, violin and even a little sitar. Given good promotion and a little luck I can easily see how they could have had an extended run with perhaps two or three more albums. But alas, despite releases of this album in North America and Europe in 1971-1972 the record and the band failed to launch, and they would disband before 1972 ran out. Bloch went on to It’s a Beautiful Day and later did some studio work in addition to recording and touring with PFM. Wendelken ended up doing engineering and production work in the film industry. I’ve no idea what happened to the rest of the group.

Not a lost masterpiece, String Cheese’s sole release is a very decent period work from the early seventies that gives fans of this type of music a little variation from the Haight-Ashbury sound while still managing to remain just inside the lines of late psych folk. A high three stars and recommended to prog folk and mellow psych fans with a few dollars to spare.


Thanks to ClemofNazareth for the artist addition.

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