Photos by Michael Liggett
The String Cheese Incident celebrated their 20th anniversary with a three-day run to ring in 2014 at the 1stBankCenter in Broomfield, CO. The venue has become Cheese’s new Denver-area indoor home in recent years, replacing the Fillmore Auditorium. The center was host to their first New Year’s run since 2006 last year, the three show 2011 Winter Carnival run, and a benefit show for victims of the Four Mile Canyon fire (10/2010).
Cheese took the stage on night one with Karl Denson and Chris Littlefield of the Tiny Universe Horns in tow and came right out playing the Beatle’s classic song ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ which contained altered lyrics referencing the formation of the band (“It was twenty years ago today”) and calling themselves “Sgt Nershi’s Cheese Heart Club Band.” From there they went straight into ‘With A Little Help from My Friends,’ which most certainly was a tribute to the fans, a special way of letting everyone know that the band couldn’t have lasted this long without their support. Right away it was apparent that the anniversary celebration was going to make for a special weekend.
From there, the band launched into crowd favorite ‘Just One Story,’ a song that typically leads to a big jam, and this one was no different. Coming out of the composed section of the song each member added new layers on its way to a rocking funk groove led by Michael Kang (mandolin) and Kyle Hollingsworth (keyboards). After reaching a peak, the band slowly brought things down to an ambient level leading to a two-minute long intro jam into ‘Little Hands.’ ‘Little Hands’ is one of those signature songs that really exemplify what this band is about; it has it all by Cheese standards…meaningful lyrics with singing duties shared by both Kang and Billy Nershi, an incredible piano solo that allows Kyle to shine, Billy’s guitar solo, and Kang straight up searing the room with a fiddle solo that always brings energy to the crowd. After JOS and LH it was pretty clear that the band didn’t need any warm-up time, and that they came to play.
‘Little Hands’ went into the nice little bluegrass ditty, ‘Dudley’s Kitchen.’ Followed by ‘Yo Se’ and ‘Rain’ before the Tiny Universe Horns came back out on stage to close the set with ‘Black and White’ and the Stevie Wonder classic, ‘I Wish’ which included a guest appearance by the keyboard player from opening act, Bootsy Collins.
Second set started off right where the first set left off with the Tiny Universe Horns joining Cheese for the relatively new Kyle song, ‘Can’t Wait Another Day’ followed by a jazz infused version of Billy’s anthem song ‘Jellyfish.’ The addition of horns is always welcome, especially when it’s led by Karl D. The funk is to be fully expected anytime these guys are on stage. The added layers of the horns brings a different and dynamic sounding element to any tune, it’s always a pleasure to the ears and extra work for dancing feet.
Next came ‘Rollover,’ which for years had been the standard post-NYE countdown song. So dropping it this early in the run was a nice surprise and left Cheeseheads to wonder what they would play to ring in the New Year this time around. The version of this ‘Rollover’ found itself in a very patient and slow building jam that led to a ferocious sound led by the wailing of Kyle all over his organ.
The band brought it down a touch with ‘Struggling Angel,’ a song that pays homage to a good friend of the band and many of its fans who passed away in 2012. The song is a perfect example of how strong of a community is built around the String Cheese Incident. You’d be hard pressed to hear anything like ‘Struggling Angel’ coming from many other bands in the world of music.
A very jammed out version of ‘Looking Glass’ came next. Over the years Billy has incorporated the electric guitar more and more into his repertoire, and he didn’t disappoint during the jam on this one. ‘Looking Glass’ kept with the Beatles theme of the night as Kyle teased ‘Baby You’re a Rich Man’ and Billy followed suit by adding some lines from the chorus. The song went unfinished as the Tiny Universe Horns came back on stage and they dropped right into a funked out and dirty ‘Dirk > Jungle Boogie > Dirk’ to close the second set.
The encore would prove to be very special, as it became a brief lesson in the history of the String Cheese Incident. First Billy came out and played ‘Down a River’ solo. He explained that it was a song that he wrote before he had ever even met any of the other members of the band. After that Keith Moseley (bass), Michael Travis (drums), and Kang joined him on stage. Billy mentioned that, “Once upon a time it was just the four of us playing.” The original members of the band played the instrumental song ‘Lester Had a Coconut.’ This was an extremely special moment, as a vast majority of the crowd in attendance had never seen just the four original members play. It also gave Travis the opportunity to delve into his old style of playing the hand drum with one hand while playing the kit with his other, a technique of his that he uses less frequently now. Following that Kyle joined them on stage and he and Billy gave a brief story of how Kyle became apart of the band before they launched into another signature Cheese song, ‘Round the Wheel.’ After the first section of RTW Jason Hann (percussion) joined into the mix as the band finished out the rest of the song with a rousing jam to close the show.
Highlights and recommended listening from night one include ‘Just One Story,’ ‘Little Hands,’ and the funk-heavy ‘Black and White’ from the first set. The second set, ‘Jellyfish,’ ‘Looking Glass,’ the ‘Dirk’ sandwich, and the entire encore are must-listens.
Night two started off with ‘Bumpen Real,’ the third part of the String Cheese Celtic trilogy (‘Rivertrance’ and ‘Valley of the Jig’). Right away the heavy electro-Celtic vibe got the place bouncing. From their Cheese followed up with the Keith tune ‘Sometimes a River’ and the always fun instrumental ‘Rhum ‘n Zouc.’
Next, Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips made a guest appearance on the Merle Haggard tune ‘Okie from Muskogee.’ Coyne discussed how they had played this song together ten years prior, when they thought marijuana would soon be legal. He then gave a nod to the Colorado legalization movement and said that he hoped in ten years marijuana would also be legal in Oklahoma, where the Flaming Lips originated.
The Billy tune ‘Song in My Head’ would follow with the good feeling ‘Best Feeling’ next. As is typical for the song, ‘Best Feeling’ contained a mellow island groove reggae influenced jam. Upon leaving the composed parts of ‘Best Feeling’ the band explored a type II jam that led into an extended intro jam that opened up to crowd pleaser ‘Restless Wind.’ The band climbs into a soaring jam driven by Kang’s fierce fiddle solo. The song capped off an otherwise mostly standard set, giving the fans a jolt before the set break and monster second set that was to come.
The second set began with The Tiny Universe Horns and Steve Berlin (saxophone) of Los Lobos and producer of Outside Inside, taking the stage with Cheese yet again to open with the funk-oriented Kyle song ‘Rosie.’ This is a song that always drops a heavy dose of funk and with the addition of the horns they brought it down. Karl D’s and Kyle’s interplay made for a unique version of the song.
Next came a ‘Miss Brown’s Teahouse’ sandwich that would feature a special treat with the bust out off ‘The Chicken.’ Cheese had only played the instrumental funk tune once since 2001; couple that in with the sweet sounds of the horns and the audience was treated to something quite special. Next up was legendary John Coltrane’s ‘Impressions,’ which has found itself in the rotation more frequently recently. The song is meant for horns, and the guests did it justice, rolling out a nice little smooth jazz groove with a Karl D flute solo that would make Ron Burgundy jealous.
The Tiny Universe Horns then left the stage and Cheese welcomed David Hidalgo (guitar/vocals), also from Los Lobos, to the stage. It was a fitting guest appearance as Cheese has had a longstanding relationship with the guys from Los Lobos. They then proceeded to launch into The Grateful Dead’s rocking tune ‘Bertha.’ The two bands had previously joined forces on this song on 02/18/2001 at the Fillmore in Denver, making it a nice nod to the past.
After that monster beginning to the set, Cheese calmed it down briefly for a breather with ‘Barstool’ before playing the reworked version of ‘Joyful Sound.’ The song now has more of a dubstep sound to it, a direction they went with sometime after Hann joined the band. Each version is different from the last, and this one wasn’t as heavy on the dubstep sound. They did, however, drop into what is now known as an “EOTO Jam” where the band leaves the stage while Hann and Travis throw down a dubstep jam. Some fans hate it, some love it…it is what it is. As usual this jam only lasted for about three minutes, upon which the rest of the band retook the stage at which Billy jokingly asked Travis if that was a Bill Monroe song. Travis responded by saying that it was Flatt & Scruggs.
With that treat out-of-the-way, Cheese played a jam that opened up into ‘Close Your Eyes,’ which they’ve been exploring and nailing monster jams with as of late. While this one didn’t reach any exploratory jamming levels, it was a pretty rocking set closer with David Hidalgo once again sitting-in on guitar.
For the encore the guys surprised the crowd by bringing out longtime and very good friend Keller Williams, who could be considered a Cheese institution. Together they navigated through an ambient and spacey version of ‘Breathe’ from the album they made together in 1999. The song was sandwiched with the pop hit ‘Royals’ by Lorde. The cover was a fun and unexpected addition, but String Cheese is known for busting out random pop hits as they’ve done before with LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’ and MGMT’s ‘Time to Pretend.’
For this show, the entire second set is recommended listening. You really can’t go wrong as this was widely considered to be the best set of the run. From the first set, ‘Restless Wind’ is top-notch and ‘Okie from Muskogee’ is also a fun listen.
After a night off it was finally time for the big extravaganza, New Year’s Eve. The sold out 1stBank Center was full of Cheeseheads in their usual finest attire full of every color imaginable, sequins, fairy wings, boas, and downright odd costumes. Bluegrass legends The Del McCoury Band kicked off the night with an opening set of their standard fair and dressed down in their classic suit and tie style.
String Cheese, donning tuxedos, took the stage for the first of the three sets with the McCoury Boys to kick off the night with the bluegrass staples ‘Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,’ Bill Monroe’s classic ‘Shenandoah Breakdown,’ and the Grateful Dead’s ‘Cold Rain and Snow.’ It’s always a treat to get to hear Del croon the lyrics to ‘Cold Rain and Snow,’ no one does it better. During all three songs Billy and Kang traded licks with brothers Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) and Robbie McCoury (banjo), and Jason Carter (fiddle).
After the little bluegrass session Ronnie and Jason remained onstage for a masterful ‘Birdland’ that included a transition into another Bill Monroe traditional ‘Wheel Hoss.’ The band followed up with ‘Give Me the Love’ that segued into a very patient and slow-building jam that became ‘Way Back Home.’ The jam during WBH was equally as patient and slowly rises with Kang fueling the way to an explosion before dropping back into the end section of the song.
The electro-Celtic instrumental ‘Valley of the Jig’ closed out the set. This song, when played properly, can be gigantic and an immense energy booster for the crowd. Tonight’s version would be no different. However, it had a different arrangement than usual. It began with a faster pace and heavy electronic vibe as Kang speedily fiddled his way through layered beats brought by Travis and Hann. The middle section featured Kyle bringing an electronic keyboard funk jam that led into an oddly “EOTOesque” jam complete with voice samples before finding its way back into the its way to a soaring fiddle segment that Kang always crushes. With the strange new arrangement of ‘Jig,’ this was far from the best version, but it still got the fans amped and sufficed as a raucous set closer.
Set two started off with the powerhouse fan favorite ‘Water,’ a song that the band always finds a way to bring the heat with and an excellent set opener. The jam excels through Kang leading the way with his nailing mandolin notes and Billy assisting with a smooth guitar riff. The song went unfinished as they segued into ‘Colliding,’ one of the newer songs from Kyle. ‘Colliding’ sticks to the funk style that Kyle has been bringing with his song writing efforts as of late.
The dark love ballad ‘Sirens’ came next, followed by the Billy mainstay ‘Windy Mountain.’ Coming after the heaviness of the previous two songs, this was a perfect placement for ‘Windy Mountain,’ which is more of a throwback to Cheese’s original style. The band came with a slow and melodic jam that never reached extraordinary levels, but still built into a nice crescendo that segued into the reggae tune ‘Stay Thru.’
After the two slower songs gave the crowd a breather, Cheese came with the rock ‘n roll onslaught of ‘Las Vegas.’ Much like ‘Jellyfish’ is a story of a Billy trip, ‘Las Vegas’ is also about a trip Billy took to the Sin City. It is rumored that the song is based on the incredible 2003 Halloween run. Not the best song lyrically, the song is full of energy and Billy shredded through a pretty decent electric guitar solo as the rest of the band provides an excellent backdrop for a powerful jam.
The set closed with ‘Desert Dawn,’ a longtime played Cheese song that has also been rearranged over the years, giving it more of an electronic sound. This time, however, the jam shied away from that electronic touch and they gave it the old school treatment. Kyle provides a solo that gets electro-funky, but is within the typical Kyle-style. The jam patiently builds through a Kang mandolin solo leading to a climatic throw down to close the set on a high note.
The band came out minutes before midnight and kicked the NYE set off with the high energy song ‘Rivertrance.’ This song is completely different every time it is played because the jam sequence always features different themes or genre styles. Tonight’s version was based around a jam building towards the countdown, which came eight minutes late, typical for String Cheese. While the band raged on, acrobat performers danced above the crowd while on strands of cloth hanging from the rafters, snow-globes with dancers inside them popped up on little stages in several areas on the floor, and a giant orb of transforming neon light emerged above the stage. After the countdown and balloon drop Cheese climaxed towards a peak in the ‘Rivertrance’ jam while fireworks went off behind the stage and showered down from above the dancing fans. Upon completing the song, the McCoury’s joined Cheese onstage while hugs and champagne were passed around. This lasted for several minutes, giving the band and fans a few minutes to share the love with one another.
Another recent Kyle funk tune, ’Let’s Go Outside,’ came next, followed by a top-notch version of ‘Smile.’ This song is quintessential Cheese, and the very definition of what this band is about. Billy wrote the song for his wife, Jillian, making it beautiful and touching lyrically. With the various composed sections of the song it really allows the band to shine. Especially during Kyle’s stirring piano solo, but mostly when Kang brings out the fiddle and gently creates a solo that rises and rises to a climax while the band fills in until it reaches an emotional peak brining it back to the chorus to close the song. There isn’t a bad version of this song out there.
Next Michael Travis and Jason Hann were given the stage to blast through a drum solo that didn’t use any electronic elements and relied heavily on the hand drums. The rest of the members filtered back on stage and filled right in for a segue jam that became ‘It Is What It Is,’ another powerful song that always hits huge peaks. Kang masterfully lead the band through a rocking jam like he always does with IIWII.
The Talking Heads ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’ came next. String Cheese has made this their song over the years; it’s easily their signature cover song and a crowd favorite. As usual, they did it justice as they led the crowd through a sing-a-long of the classic tune. Billy delivered a near-perfect guitar solo and Kyle thanked the fans for joining them on “this 20 year journey.”
Surprisingly ‘Naïve Melody’ then segued into the reprise of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ where the band sang the seemingly poignant line “We hope you have enjoyed the show.” From there they segued into a jam that eventually brought the ending of ‘Just One Story,’ which had gone unfinished the first night of the run, to close the show. With the ‘Sgt Pepper’s > JOS Reprise’ they closed the show just like it had begun (almost), a creative and fitting thing for Cheese to do.
The encore would be none other than ‘Colorado Bluebird Sky,’ which seems to be the new go-to signature song for the String Cheese Incident. It’s found itself in the heavy hitter set list spots over the last year or two, and become what is known as a “jam vehicle” as the band often stretches it out, as was the case here.
Overall it was an excellent weekend and fantastic celebration of the band’s 20th anniversary. Moments like the encore on night one, and guest appearances from friends of the band like Keller Williams, Los Lobos, and the Tiny Universe Horns made for a special weekend and great music. The band played well and put on three incredible performances, there’s no arguing that. One thing that was missing, however, was the likes of big-time String Cheese fan favorites like ‘Shine,’ ‘Black Clouds,’ ‘Texas,’ ‘Howard,’ and ‘Born on the Wrong Planet.’ Never the less, it was a superb weekend and there wasn’t a person in the building that didn’t have a great time.
Thank you for twenty years of good times and great music, Cheese. Here’s to many more to come….