The String Cheese Incident concluded their three-night Red Rocks run last night, an extended stay at one of the greatest venues on the planet. Over the six sets played on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the band dug deep to bring back oft-ignored classics, debuted covers, played new joints from their SCI Sound Lab project, and provided a wash of positivity over the concert-goers.
The lot filled up relatively early as anxious ticket-holders jump-started the weekend’s fun. As tailgaters passed around snacks and drinks, TAUK took the stage to provide an hour of their instrumental rock-fusion before String Cheese took the stage.
When Billy Nershi and company come out, you never quite know how it’s going to start. Sometimes it’s the full-on dance party ensued by a “Rosie,” and other times it’s a bit more patient. On Friday, the band dove straight into “Texas,” one of their most highly regarded cuts. The sextet must have had a nice soundcheck or something, because they were sounding tight and focused as they finished the opener. “Get Tight,” “Way That It Goes,” and “Farther” chilled things out a bit, before Kang led the group in the anthemic “Water.” Luckily there was only a bit of a drizzle earlier that day, and clear skies for the remainder of the weekend. “Water” segued into “It Is What It Is,” another track that allows Kang to really flex his skills on the 5-string mandolin. “Hi Ho No Show” ended things with a raucous dance party.
Second set was on fire the entire time. “Just One Story” into “Way Back Home” into a debut of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” back into “Way Back Home” was a string of insanity. Like any great jam band, no one else could pull a combo like that one off. Kyle Hollingsworth’s organ-driven instrumental jazz-blues cut “Seventh Step” was a nice choice to break up the vocally-driven tracks that would follow: the bluegrassy “Black Clouds” and then a one-two punch of “Miss Brown’s Teahouse” into “Let’s Go Outside.” By the end of all that, the crowd was ecstatic, but wouldn’t have to head home before a phenomenal “Rivertrance” encore brought one more blast of dancing out of us.
Set One Texas, Get Tight, Way That It Goes, Farther, Water > It Is What It Is > Hi Ho No Show Set Two Just One Story > Way Back Home > Everybody Wants To Rule the World > Way Back Home, Seventh Step, Black Clouds, Miss Brown’s Teahouse > Let’s Go Outside Encore Rivertrance
The buzz around Kamasi Washington’s set was thick leading into his Saturday opening slot. The band brought their A-game, playing “Changing of the Guard,” “Re-Run Home,” and “Henrietta Our Hero,” and “Henrietta Our Hero” in their spiritually-charged, jazz/funk stylings that have made them a staple damn-near everywhere recently. Just for context, no other String Cheese Incident opener will go on to play Pitchfork Music Festival the next day, and that type of crossover appeal has recently laid the foundation for total domination from Kamasi Washington and The Next Step.
When Cheese followed up, they had their work cut out for them, but they wouldn’t have too much difficulty keeping up. The Saturday show was one of the best I’d ever seen from the group, and I’ve seen 40-something shows at this point. Kamasi would sit in twice, for two songs in each the first and second set. The first time was for “Impressions,” a major bust out that segued into “I Want To Take You Higher,” the Sly Stone track. The latter also had Sheryl Renee on vocals.
The second set started with a couple new numbers before inviting Kamasi for “45th of November” into “Bumpin’ Reel.” The chemistry between Kamasi and the band was a serious treat to watch, and his virtuosic saxophone chops proved to be one of the best collaborations I’ve seen alongside Cheese. “Colorado Bluebird Sky” had everyone singin’ loud, and “Sirens” jammed into “Desert Dawn” saw the band executing an ambitious improvisational stretch with poise.
A debut Fleetwood Mac cover, “Dreams,” began the encore with Sheryl Renee absolutely crushing the vocal parts. “Believe” brought us home.
Set One Restless Wind, Best Feeling > Rain, Until the Music’s Over, You’ve Got the World, Impressions1 > I Want To Take You Higher12 Set Two Sweet Spot, Beautiful > 45th of November1 > Bumpin’ Reel1, Colorado Bluebird Sky, Sirens > Desert Dawn Encore Dreams2, Believe Notes 1 with Kamasi Washington, 2 with Sheryl Renee
The final night on the rocks featured a “Hot Cheese Rizing” set, beginning the double-dose of String Cheese with the entire Hot Rize band in tow. The band chugged through some bluegrass numbers, along with “Land’s End,” a Tim O’Brien track that Cheese made into their own when they were first just getting started. Other highlights of that first set featured an incredible sunset, am exuberant “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance,” a rare “Rhum ‘n’ Zouc,” and super strong winds that kicked in during the first beats of “Colliding.”
Set two began with “Rosie,” proving that the party is hardly over. “Turn This Around” sandwiched a beautiful cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” before “Windy Mountain” provided some fitting lyrical themes, and coincidentally ended the wild wind storm that started during the end of the first set. It’s certainly worth noting that there was an insane heat lightning display throughout the first half of the second set, adding yet another natural element of beauty to the Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
The band may have sounded their best during the “‘Round the Wheel” encore, which was fully locked in with Kang soloing like a madman. The groove had everyone moving, squeezing out the last bit of energy after a long weekend. It was enough to keep us roaring for another encore, and the band came out to crush Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” a staple in their repertoire.
Set One On the Road Again1, Land’s End1, Panama Red1, Nine Pound Hammer1, These Waves > Djibouti Bump, Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance, Falling Through the Cracks, Rhum ‘n’ Zouc > Colliding Set Two Rosie, Turn This Around > Breathe > Turn This Around, Windy Mountain, Stop Drop Roll, Love Is Like a Train, Joyful Sound > Rumble, BollyMunster Encore Down a River, ‘Round the Wheel, Encore 2: Ramble On Notes 1 with Hot Rize
It’s been great watching the band evolve over the years, and the 2016 edition of SCI is perhaps the best they’ve sounded in years. They’ve shed some of the awkward electronics that plagued them a few years back, and have really settled into their own with that sound. It no longer sounds like each member is trying to pull the band in another direction, but instead that they’ve reached an understanding in the modern SCI sound: bluegrass roots, electronic experimentation, a dose of Talking Heads funk, jazz improvisation, and an overall kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll show.