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Published: 2015/07/30
by Ray Bowden

String Cheese Incident, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, CO- 7/25&26

Photos by Larry Hulst

The String Cheese Incident staged an impressive return to Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre July 24-26, delivering three nights of virtuosic playing vibes to a sold-out crowd after a two-year break from performing at the famous venue.

Though tightly played, the band’s July 24 performance appeared to be a mere warmup for what the band would deliver July 25 and July 26. The band’s sinuous performance on those nights were amplified by a crystal-clear sound system and a spectacular light display which swathed the stage, the sold-out crowd, and the towering red rocks book-ending the amphitheater, in elegant luminescent cotton-candy colors throughout the show.

The band returned to the stage with a purpose July 25. From the first note of Bill Nershi’s springy set-opener, “Song in My Head,” to the last note of the Indian-flavoured “Bolly Munster>”Billie Jean>”Bollymunster” encore, the concert was raucous celebration of everything SCI fans have come to expect from the band over its 22-year career: a wide-ranging setlist, inspired jamming, and a reason for everyone with two legs in the vicinity of the stage to dance.

Set one featured backup singers Rhonda Thomas and Tony White who added a distinctive Rhythm & Blues vibe to “Sweet Spot” and “Stay Through.” The singers stuck around to take part in the band’s tribute to late Blues legend B.B. King – a smoldering cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” Two SCI mainstays were next: an exuberant run through “Round the Wheel” and Bill Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss,” the later reinforced by Nershi’s animated singing and lightning-fast fretwork. Michael Travis and Jason Hann took over for a punchy “Drums” segment before Keith Moseley (bass, vocals) steered the band to the Peach State to visit the Allman Brothers’ “Sweet Melinda.” Thomas and White returned to the stage for the set-closer, a ripping version of former Beatle Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.”

While set one was miles above simply “solid,” SCI took off into the musical stratosphere during set two. Following a short break to allow the crowd and band to collectively catch their breath, SCI hit the stage with Hollingsworth’s “Tinder Box,” a song missing in action from the band’s playlist for two years. The crowd clung to every note, singing along to the song’s chorus “When they lie awake at night do they hear the siren’s song, dream of love that’s lost and gone?” Next up was a poignant version of “Restless Wind,” led by Nershi. The song’s bridge, “Roots run deep, faster than the wind, roots run deep, I feel all the love you send,” seemed to embody the unifying spirit shared by SCI and its fans. The centerpiece of the lengthy set, “Rivertrance,” featured the elegant Baroque and Folk violin-styling of Michael Kang. Kang was also a definitive presence on Hollingsworth’s “Way Back Home,” punctuating the song’s melody with zippy mandolin runs. The band surprised the crowd and possibly themselves, judging by the big smile Hollingsworth gave Kang during the jam out of “Way Back Home,” by taking a musical turn to conclude the set with a reprise of “Just One Story.”

Dave Watts, from the Denver-based band The Motet, and Jeremy Salken, from Boulder’s Big Gigantic, joined Travis and Hann on drums before SCI’s final song of the night. With Thomas and White back in tow, the band dived into “Rosie” but crossed into the funk zone to take on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The early 80’s hit a welcome gift, and the nearly 10,000 SCI fans packing the amphitheater that night showed their appreciation by dancing and joyfully singing along with the band.

As pitch-perfect on all levels as SCI’s July 25 performance was, it was a mere taste of what the band would deliver the following night. On July 26 SCI was simply on fire, and seemed to tap every measure of creativity and musicianship they brought with them to the stage. With the exception of Hollingsworth’s new “Stop Drop Roll,” Kang’s “Beautiful,” and Nershi’s “Colorado Bluebird Sky,” nearly every song of the night had been an SCI mainstay for at least 15 years. This didn’t stop the band from playing with poise and passion, and nearly every song was played with the energy normally given to originals.

SCI began the set with Hollingsworth’s resolute invocation to self-discovery, “Close Your Eyes.” Hollingsworth’s layered playing ranged from subtle to dynamic throughout the night, but was always appropriate and added to the music at hand. Whether pounding out jazz chords on his organ, quick filigrees on his electric piano or near-guttural deep-space funk on his synthesizer, Hollingsworth was always on point and his playing seemed the focus for many of the mind-blowing jams that were to follow throughout the night. Next, Nershi kept the energy high with “Far From Home,” an off-hand tribute to the wanderlust so many in SCI’s audience seems to be afflicted with. After the instrumental, “Blue Bossa,” SCI flowed into a glorious rendition of Kang’s “Water,” unquestionably the centerpiece of the first set and possibly the night. “Water” produced a long and intense jam with each band member added to the musical palate. During this stunning interval, Hollingsworth, Kang and Nershi, stood close, trading licks – while Moseley, Travis, and Hann locked in on an air-tight, pulsing groove, before the band found their way back to conclude the song. Moseley’s always-welcome “Joyful Sound,” was next, followed by the Nershi-led “Miss Brown’s Teahouse, a song that seemed to shoot “arrows of love” into the crowd. By the time SCI closed the set with a triumphant rendition of “Desert Dawn,” one could have been justified in wondering if the band could maintain the same excitement and intensity during the night’s second set. If anything, the band only doubled the audience’s delight.

Set two began with “Howard,” but the band swerved into prog-rock territory with Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” Kang’s mastery of his instrument was obvious as he fired off glissando scales and blistering run from his electric mandolin, seeming to squeeze it dry. His playing ran the gamut from Jimi Hendrix-like chording to Frank Zappa-like leads. During ‘Tom Sawyer,” he added to Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson original solo, never mimicking the original but managing to bring the prototype to new heights. Later in the set, Hann and Travis supported Moseley’s Reggae-spattered “Sirens” with a bottomless Rastafarian groove before Hollingsworth took over with the upbeat but serious “Don’t Say.” After a Kang’s buoyant homage to a lover, “Beautiful,” the band wrapped up set two with Nershi’s “Colorado Bluebird Sky,” a song extolling the joys of living in the Centennial State.

SCI returned for seamless three-song 30-minute encore, ratcheting-up the intensity with each song. Hollingsworth first led the band through the Talking Heads “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” before Nershi took over for a loopy but welcome version of “Jellyfish.” SCI took off like a rocket into “I Know You Rider,” ending their most recent Red Rocks run on what can only be described as a very high note.

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