Note: I am going to deviate from my usual style of review for this one. It was the final weekend of shows for The String Cheese Incident and I feel it is more appropriate to address the entire event in one entry.
Over the years String Cheese Incident has been about much more than just the music. The feelings of friendship and family that have swirled around the scene have been as much a part of the experience of being at an Incident as the music has been. The band has worked hard to cultivate this feeling and when the announcement was made last November that Billy Nershi would be leaving String Cheese the feeling that this could be the end of more than just the music was inescapable.
As SCI was born in the mountains of Colorado and flourished in Boulder, it was fitting that the final run of shows took place in the shadows of Creation Rock at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. There is a certain energy that Red Rocks holds and SCI has always been able to tap into that energy with amazing success. At moments this past weekend the Barefoot Boys sounded as good as they have in years. It was as if a fog that had descended into the collective consciousness of the band over the past couple of years had finally lifted.
From the first notes of “Birdland” on Thursday evening through the exclamation point that the final “Texas” put on the career of this band on Sunday, the significance of this run of shows was palpable yet not all consuming. There were, of course, moments of melancholy but overall the feelings of sheer joy and excitement that are synonymous with String Cheese dominated the weekend.
“We’re here to have as much fun as humanly possible,” said Michael Kang when he and the rest of the band took the stage on Thursday night. Red Rocks was only about two thirds full, but the locals and out of towners who had amended their travel plans to make it to the Thursday show were ready to dance. When the boys kicked off the festivities it was clear that they were playing well and the dancing began. The tempo of the show was a bit uneven and they slowed things way down for tracks like “Emma’s Dream” and “45th of November,” but they really drove home the covers. Kang showcased his electric mandolin prowess by nailing the solos in “Comfortably Numb” which opened the second set and the Allman Brothers “Jessica” which closed it out.
The only true disappointment of the evening came when the show wrapped and they hadn’t broken out a Jerry Garcia tune in honor of the 12th anniversary of his passing. They nodded to the late Grateful Dead guitarist by saying “here’s one that Jerry liked to sing,” before encoring with “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” but it just wasn’t the same as a Jerry tune. With songs like “Shakedown Street” and “Eyes of the World” in their arsenal, I was truly surprised that the boys didn’t do the old man proud with one of his real chestnuts.
While speculation abounded as to what special guests would flood the stage throughout the weekend the band decided to keep it mostly a family affair by inviting only Danny Sears and Chris Cuzme from the Pangea Horns out on Friday night and a special member of the extended SCI family on Sunday. Sears and Cuzme contributed Trumpet and Sax respectively and did an exceptional job cranking up the energy on “Howlin” At The Moon,” “Black and White” and Stevie Wonder”s “I Wish” during Friday’s first set.
During set break, the crowd around us was abuzz with the rumor that David Byrne would be making an appearance. While the rumor turned out to be nothing more than a fantasy, SCI did give us the first of two Talking Heads covers for the weekend when they ran through “What A Day That Was” early in the set.
In one of the few melancholy moments of the weekend the band broke out the recently neglected “Bigger Isn’t Better.” The song, written way back in the early days of the band, now seems that it may have been a harbinger of things to come. While the song is about the growth of the bands beloved little mountain towns it has taken on new meaning for SCI fans these days. Nershi has sited the bands growth and popularity as one of the reasons for his departure as he longs to return to the simple days of making music with his friends and not having to support the army of crew and other employees that it takes to keep the SCI juggernaut rolling down the road.
“Just what it is that keeps me here is hard to say, the answer’s not real clear. I guess it casts a spell that’s hard to break. Like December’s ice on a mountain lake, I tried to get out but I don’t have the heart to leave all my friends and make a new start . . . ‘Cause bigger isn’t better and money isn’t happiness . . .”
After “Bigger Isn’t Better” the band picked things back up and the party was on again. “Mouna Bowa,” “Pretty Polly,” “Joyful Sound,” “Just Like Tom Thumb”s Blues” and finally a huge “Rollover” finished out the set with one of the strongest run of songs of the weekend.
Following a short break, the horn section was invited back up to the stage for the encore which allowed Travis to fly his freak flag high. The band kicked into a groove and he emerged from the shadows of stage left moonwalking into the spotlight dressed as Michael Jackson. Jason Hann had taken over on the drum kit and the crowd erupted when Travis’ falsetto rang out with “Lovely is the feelin” now. Fever, temperatures risin” now;” the first lines of “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough.” He tore it up at center stage for the duration of the song before heading back to join Hann as the band segued right into “Search” to close out a very solid evening of music.
While Thursday and Friday were very strong performances there was some sense on Saturday that the band was building up to something; that though they had reached a “10” they were going to turn it to the proverbial “11.” John Dwork of Peak Experience Productions had been spotted running around all weekend but it wasn’t until Saturday that his contributions started appearing.
As the band opened the show with “Little Hands,” kite like butterflies appeared in the air around the soundboard and began making their way through the tightly packed crowd. This was only the beginning of an evening of the kind of eye and ear candy that The Cheese hasn’t served up in quite some time.
The band really seemed to hit their stride about midway through the first set when Kyle Hollingsworth took control and led the band through the very funky “BAM!” sandwiched between a “Close Your Eyes” that allowed his raspy voice and magic fingers push the energy up a notch. The crowd was sensing something special and after the one-two punch of “Outside Inside” and “I Know You Rider” closed out the set. We collected ourselves and prepared for what we all knew would be a memorable experience.
The moment everyone was waiting for came early in the second set when crowd favorite “Rivertrance” finally reared its beautiful head. As the band dropped into the epic jam the stage lit up with the familiar green glow of lasers and a massive glow stick war ensued that didn’t let up for most of the set. As lasers danced on the massive Rock outcroppings that tower above the amphitheater the band was feeding off the frenzy of the crowd and they kept dishing out one huge crescendo after another.
The sea of grinning faces, that had swarmed The Rocks in anticipation of one more evening like this, bobbed and boogied for the duration of a set that featured glowing Jellyfish dancing on the stage, trapeze artists, hula hoopers, and stilt walkers courtesy of Peak Experience.
Even Mother Nature cooperated during this massive set by whipping up a huge lightning storm just southeast of Red Rocks. The bolts lit up the sky for nearly an hour but most prominently during “Hotel Window” when audible gasps could be heard from the crowd as the night sky was torn apart by giant bolts of electricity. If they had phoned in the request it couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. All the elements fit together like puzzle pieces to create a concert experience that is sure to live on in the memories of all that attended for years to come.
Though the energy in the crowd on Sunday night simply couldn’t match the intensity and pandemonium of Saturday’s second set, the boys still played their hearts out up on stage. Emerging a little bit earlier for a 30 minute acoustic bluegrass set to start the evening off they played some of the songs that had drawn them together all those years ago including “Panama Red,” “Hobo Song,” and “Stingray.”
The second set of three Sunday evening featured the biggest surprise the boys had up their sleeves this weekend but they bobbed and bounced their way through nearly 45 minutes of music before revealing it. After listening to SCI pick their way through the blistering “Indian Creek” it was a special treat to see Keller Williams himself come hooping out of the shadows as the band played the intro to his “Best Feeling,” a song that has been a staple in the SCI rotation for years. Keller handled lead vocals and 12 string guitar duties and, to the delight of the crowd, the band segued from “Best Feeling” into another Williams’s original: “Fuel For the Road,” before sending him back to the wings of the stage.
There are Cheese fans out there who have been calling for Keller Williams to fill in for Nershi since the announcement was made that he’d be leaving the band. Williams has quite a history with SCI and Breathe may well one of the best String Cheese related studio albums out there. He grew up under the wing of these boys, opening countless shows in the 90’s, and today is an established member of the scene. In a way, they may have been passing torch on to Keller, but I’m sure that during set break it was more than just a fleeting thought in many minds that a Keller Williams Incident, with or without Nershi, would be a treat in the years to come.
“You ready for one more set of Cheese?” bellowed Keith Mosely at the start of the third set before Nershi led the band into the reflective “Restless Wind” which got the ho-down going full-steam ahead. Lyrics like “I look back on the past, time gone by so fast” and “I turn back towards my home but I don’t feel alone” sent ripples through the crowd and pulled some out of their euphoria to realize that this too must end, and sooner than they had hoped. The band didn’t falter at all during the set and seemed to be reveling in the music as they ran through relatively new tunes like Hollingsworth’s “Rain” and “Piece of Mine” and older tunes like Nershi’s “Drifting” and “Rhythm of the Road.” As Kang sang “All we need is a little love to get through this time,” at the beginning of the set closing “Shine,” the band again seemed to be nodding to the impending end that loomed so close.
After they waved and said goodnight I’m sure they could feel the love backstage as the crowd begged for more. When they finally emerged for an encore they handed Travis the reigns for a rare and beautiful cover of Pink Floyd”s “Fearless,” which segued into a the traditional Bluegrass number “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”
What followed was perhaps the most melancholy moment of the weekend and one that sent chills through the crowd as Kang stepped to the mic and said simply “I think all we can say is ‘Thank You’.” The reaction to these words was deafening and the band seemed to stand there soaking it up for an eternity before collecting themselves and launching into a spirited “Good Times Around the Bend.” I couldn’t think of a more perfect way for this band to end their tenure on the scene. “The Rollercoaster must roll to the bottom before it climbs to the top again,” stood out as a very hopeful thought for all the fans who thought they were witnessing the last moments of the last Incident.
As Nershi’s final riff of the song faded away and the band gathered at the front of the stage for a ceremonial bow, the reality of the moment began to set in for many, though no one headed for the exits. Hugs were shared and the cheering was overpowering as the audience showered their praise on this band who has given so much to their fans over the years. As they walked off the stage for what we all thought was the last time the decibel level only seemed to rise as the band was begged for “just one more.”
After several minutes, movement was detected backstage and The String Cheese Incident lived up to their reputation of delivering the unexpected by returning to the stage and launching into “Texas,” one of their most fun loving and beloved tunes.
“Texas” is a song that personifies this band in a way that few of the other songs in their repertoire do. Its humorous storytelling lyrics, bluegrass influence and monster psychedelic jam touch on the many facets of SCI. It has been quite a journey that these men have been on together and this song was a fitting end to this phase of their career.
Throughout this very special weekend it was great to see all that had attracted us to the band live on right through their last performances. New friends were made in lines, in the lots, and on the benches as we freely gave of our beer, and other necessities, danced all over each others tarps and took pictures with our costumed comrades in Cheese. The music raged nearly as intensely as it ever has and the smiles that flashed between band members gave us all hope that this wouldn’t be the last time The String Cheese Incident would bring our tight knit family together.
Stage Presence: A+
Set/Light Show: A+