Photo by Tim Dwenger
The Scene: Just like last year, the first night of String Cheese Incident’s New Year’s run at 1st Bank Center was relatively sparsely attended. The room was a little over half-full at showtime and though it allowed for plenty of room to dance and move freely from the floor to the stands, the room lacked the electric energy that can make an Incident such a magical experience.
Opener: Bootsy Collins & The Funk Unity Band. Legendary Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins took the stage at the stroke of seven with his brand new “Funk Unity Band” and launched into an 80 minute set that showcased some new tunes alongside P-Funk favorites like “Flashlight,” “P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)” and “Mothership Connection.” While the 14 piece band was full of energy and some of the typical P-Funk antics, the sound was borderline awful. The bass frequencies were pushed to the max and simply overpowered much of the music. Sure, Bootsy’s a bassist, but come-on, lets balance things out a little bit.
As the set wound down, Bootsy got the crowd revved up with a raging take on “Cholly (Funk Getting Ready To Roll)” before dropping his red sequined cape to reveal a Peyton Manning jersey. Needless to say, the Denver crowd went nuts and it wasn’t long before Collins had hopped down into the crowd to sing from the midst of an energized group of funkateers who pressed up against the barrier. In the end, it was a typical P-Funk type show, some good sing-alongs, wild costumes, booming bass, but sadly something was missing. While I hoped Collins would join SCI during their portion of the evening to P-Funk up the Incident, unfortunately he never showed his face.
String Cheese Incident: Expectations were high when Billy Nershi led String Cheese to the stage for the first of their 20th Anniversary Incidents, and things took off quickly with Keith Mosely taking a turn on lead vocals as the band debuted a cover of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to kick off the run. After changing up the lyrics a bit to reflect Nershi’s leadership in the early days of the group (“It was 20 years ago today, Billy Nershi taught the band to play”) Mosely handed the reigns to Billy for “With A Little Help From My Friends.” It was a perfect pairing given the band’s milestone and after an energetic run through “Just One Story” the boys delivered an early highlight in the form of the combination of “Little Hands” and a raging “Dudley’s Kitchen” that showcased their Bluegrass roots. Energy in the room was high and the Latin flavorings of “Yo Se” kept us dancing.
The set ended with Karl Denson and Chris Littlefield of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe joining the band on horns and damn did they crank things up a notch as they added several layers to Kang’s jam vehicle “Black and White.” The band was firing on all cylinders and when Denson belted out the first line of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” the crowd exploded. It was a Funk throwdown and everyone in the room was dancing. It was the perfect way to end the first set and the place was buzzing during setbreak about what the second set would bring.
Sadly, what the second set ended up showcasing was some uneven pacing, some aborted jams, and a general lack of energy from the band. After a lackluster “Can’t Wait Another Day” the Tiny Universe horns came back out and Nershi redeemed last year’s botched “Jellyfish” with one of the best versions I’ve heard in a long time. As the band segued into “Rollover” (one of my all time favorite SCI tunes) I was sure we were in for a stellar set but just as the jam was about to take off, they aborted it and confused the crowd. Perhaps sensing the low energy in the room Mosely took the opportunity to drop the tender and melancholy “Struggling Angel” into the set and while I really enjoy this song, and the appreciate the meaning it brings with it for these hometown shows, I felt it was poorly placed. When the set needed energy they sapped it even further.
“Looking Glass” didn’t do much to pick things up for me, but when they moved into “Dirk” and the horns came back out I knew the Funk would get us all dancing again. A little excursion into Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” brought a smile to my face but it was becoming clear to me that without Karl D and the horns, the second set would have been a wash. A return to “Dirk” closed out the set a lackluster set and I was wondering how they were going to salvage the night.
As if knowing the second set had left us a little flat, the boys delivered a three song encore that began with Nershi performing a solo acoustic version of “Down A River” before inviting the other three original members of the band (Mosely, Travis & Kang) to the stage to join him for “Lester Had A Coconut.” The four then brought out Hollingsworth who explained how he had been invited to join the band as Mosely dropped the bass line of “Round The Wheel.” Finally, midway through the songs jam, the most recent member of the band, Jason Hann emerged and proved his worth by tearing into a furious percussion solo.
As we filed out into the snowy night, I was left with mixed feelings about the show. There were flashes of brilliance and some powerful horn fueled jams, but when all was said and done this was just an average incident. Hopefully the boys were just warming up and clearing out the cobwebs. Here’s hoping for a NYE show for the ages!
Stage Presence: B
Set/Light Show: A