[22 January 2014]
For some, attending a New Year’s Eve party and consuming as much booze as possible is a sufficient way to celebrate the occasion. But that’s for the muggles of the world as far as jamrock fans are concerned. For the professionals, live music is a mandatory part of the equation for one of the most important and sacred holidays of the year.
Like most jamrock traditions, the NYE celebration dates back to the Grateful Dead. Renowned for throwing gala New Year’s Eve bashes in the Bay Area for over 20 years, the Dead was pretty much the only New Year’s Eve game in the land for the counterculture in the 1970s and ‘80s. The tradition was jeopardized by Jerry Garcia’s untimely departure in the summer of 1995. But like Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Jedi, Garcia’s passing catalyzed the evolution of the scene. By the dawning of the 21st century, there were a handful of higher level jambands playing New Year’s Eve shows. Among those groups the String Cheese Incident’s annual bashes have become legendary.
The tradition has continued to bloom in the 21st century. We live in a golden age of sound with a wide variety of bands playing NYE shows all across the country. Denver is one of the top destinations for its ability to support several big shows simultaneously. This year alone one could choose from Umphrey’s McGee at the Denver Fillmore, Tea Leaf Green at Cervantes Other Side, Pretty Lights headlining the Decadence event at the Colorado Convention Center, The Sword at the Bluebird Theater, Yonder Mountain String Band at the Boulder Theater, or Big Head Todd and the Monsters at the Paramount Theater, amongst many others. But for the ultimate spectacle, the choice had to be the String Cheese Incident celebrating its 20th anniversary of existence with a three-night run at the 1st Bank Center in Broomfield. The sparkling 6,000 guest capacity arena opened just a few years ago and lies halfway between Denver and Boulder.
SCI is a band with a long reputation for delivering peak experiences on special occasions. A strong stand was foreshadowed when SCI announced a gala lineup of special guests for the three show run, including the Tiny Universe Horns (Karl Denson and Chris Littlefield of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe), Bootsy Collins, the Flaming Lips, David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin from Los Lobos, and the Del McCoury Band for the final performance. Bootsy Collins and the Funk Unity Band opened the show on the 28th, featuring some Parliament Funkadelic hits as well as a sizzling version of the Buddy Miles/Band of Gypsys classic “Them Changes” that helped warm the arena as snow fell outside.
SCI and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe are longtime friends and collaborators. It was a heartwarming sight when Denson and Littlefield appeared onstage for the beginning of the show. The band set the tone for the run with a Beatles bust-out combo of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “A Little Help from my Friends”, accented in superb fashion by a brass horn section. “Sgt. Pepper” was the perfect opener with its reference to “twenty years ago today.” SCI exhibited deft skill at covering songs that fit the moment. The horns exited as the band launched into “Just One Story” and proceeded to jam the tune in scintillating fashion.
The Tiny Universe horn section returned at the end of the set for a smoking take on “Black and White”, a tune from mandolinist Michael Kang on the band’s pivotal 2001 LP Outside Inside. The song raises questions of hidden history and how information is distributed, suggesting the news is rarely as black or white as it attempts to be. The song becomes a tight, funky jam when Kang and Denson trade hot licks. The ability to write groovy tunes that give the listener a boost in consciousness has long been one of the elements that makes SCI unique. This factor elevates the band to the cream of the jamrock crop, along with its genre-bending mix of rock, bluegrass and electronica.
Guitarist Bill Nershi’s classic “Jellyfish” was another tune elevated by the horns. The jams kept flowing with Kang’s “Rollover”, an epic song that features some of the band’s deepest lyrics and jams. Also dating to Outside Inside, the song references the planet’s looming changes and how we could all wind up beneath the sea due to Mother Earth’s vengeance. “Looking Glass” was another gem with a great melodic jam before the horns returned yet again to deliver a supercharged take on keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth’s “Dirk”. Formerly known as “Searching for Answers”, the song was allegedly renamed in honor of the ever-popular Dirk Diggler. The song is another SCI blend of hot funk and probing lyrics about the turbulent state of the world. The horns gave the song an extra kick as it segued into an ultra-funky jam on “Jungle Boogie” before returning to “Dirk” to close the set out with a bang.
For the first night of the three day run SCI didn’t hold back in the slightest way, obviously psyched to be celebrating its 20-year anniversary. This was made apparent with a triple encore, during which Nershi narrated tales of the band’s early years. He played “Down a River” solo acoustic and spoke of writing the song before the band started while living in his friend’s sheepherding trailer for $30 a month. Kang, bassist Keith Moseley and drummer Michael Travis then returned to the stage to form the group’s core four for “Lester Had a Coconut”, one of the band’s earliest songs. Hollingsworth and percussionist Jason Hann returned for “Round the Wheel”, another early classic, to end the show in climactic fashion.
The festivities would continue on the 29th with opener the Flaming Lips. Special guest highlights included Wayne Coyne joining SCI for “Okie from Muskogee” and the Tiny Universe Horns for “Miss Brown’s Teahouse”. David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos joined the band for the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha”, an extra treat for anyone who might have seen SCI tour with Phil Lesh in 1999. The band continued to emphasize historical connections. Longtime cohort Keller Williams helped the band close the show, appearing during the encore for a rendition of “Breath” that segued into a zeitgeist cover of Lorde’s “Royals”, before segueing back into “Breath”.
SCI took the 30th off, returning to the stage on New Year’s Eve fully refreshed and ready to crush, but absent the Tiny Universe Horns. SCI turned the page by enlisting the Del McCoury Band to open the show, providing an old school connection to the origins of the entire scene. In 1963, Del McCoury became a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, which is worth an incalculable number of what some jamrock fans refer to as ‘heady points,’ the slang term for a combo of credibility and karma. The very concept of traveling around the country to record the improvisational adventures of your favorite band may have been started by Jerry Garcia himself, who used to tape Bill Monroe shows in the early 1960s. So there were decades worth of musical history onstage.
McCoury and his sons are all ace musicians, although an arena setting is not the greatest fit for a straight bluegrass band as the sound doesn’t quite fill up the space. But the real treat came when the Del McCoury Band joined SCI for the first three songs of the first set. The members of SCI all donned tuxes to match the McCourys, as past and present collided for a special performance for what was now an 11-man band. A take on the traditional “Cold Rain and Snow” with Del McCoury on lead vocal was a sonic gold trip through the time-space continuum. Garcia made the bluegrass classic a staple of the Grateful Dead’s repertoire for 30 years by transforming it into a rock song, but SCI and the McCourys delivered the vintage version for a rare take on the history that influenced the foundation of the modern jamrock scene.
The bluegrass flavor prevailed for much of the first set with a plethora of hot picking, giving it a feel dating back to SCI’s early days. “Valley of the Jig” served as an ingenious set closer. The song uses the patented SCI formula of mixing a traditional fiddle part from Kang with a psychedelic trance rock progression to create an ultimate crowd pleaser.
The second set saw three-fifths of the band members ditching their tuxes to loosen up for the ensuing barnburner. Extra flair was in order as Kang donned a white top hat complete with white feather. The costume was in line with the crowd, where psychedelic flair was the order of the evening. A big jam on set opener “Water” confirmed the band’s commitment to sonic exploration throughout the night. The psychedelic light show enhanced the jams throughout the run, but always with the musical energy to back it up.
“Windy Mountain” saw Nershi starring on a contemplative classic with spiritual overtones on the passage of time. The tune provided a bit of a breather before the band veered into a gorgeous jam with Nershi and Kang trading licks over the floating melodic groove before another big climax. Few bands deliver these sonic journeys as skillfully as SCI and it’s a large part of what has earned the band such a devoted following. A “Las Vegas, Desert Dawn” combo delivered a double shot of high energy psych-rock jamming to close the set with gusto.
When the lights went down at about a quarter to midnight, the energy in the air was palpable. Four life sized snow globes with winter nymphs dancing inside appeared around the arena floor, adding a winter solstice type of vibe while a giant disco ball provided added ambience. Acrobats descended above to further conjure a winter carnival atmosphere as SCI launched into the epic “Rivertrance”. The song is arguably the band’s greatest jam vehicle. The entire arena seemed to unite in one collective trance dance groove, the type of feeling that gives one renewed hope for humanity heading into a new year. As the midnight hour neared, a Father Time character appeared by the soundboard with a giant sparkler stick while KISS-style fireworks exploded from the stage.
When the countdown to midnight appeared on the screen, the band kept jamming harder and faster. The group did not stop at midnight to play “Auld Lang Syne”, but rather kept on jamming as balloons descended from the ceiling and the lights continued to swirl for maximum psychedelia. The entire sequence was an ecstatic celebration of life and the power of music to bring people together. The band would soon move back into high gear with “It Is What It Is”, a tune that begins with an innocent noodly intro before launching into the sonic stratosphere. The vibe was spectacular as Kang’s molten melodic leads charged the audience, with the band laying down a huge groove that elevated the room to cloud nine once again.
A staple cover of the Talking Heads “This Must Be the Place” followed, inciting a crowd singalong on another fan favorite. SCI brought it home in style by segueing into a “Sgt. Pepper” reprise to connect the run back to the first night, completed by a “Just One Story” reprise to connect the jamming vibe back to the first serious jam of the run.
“2014, we’re here!” shouted Nershi jubilantly upon returning. There was another big cheer after Hollingsworth referenced the legal cannabis that would become available in Colorado starting New Year’s Day. The band encored with “Colorado Bluebird Sky”, with the crowd singing along with Nershi on the “You can live a mile high” chorus. As fans drifted off into the cool but not freezing evening, there was a collective sense of joy and fulfillment from having witnessed another spectacular peak experience with the String Cheese Incident.
Photo by C. Taylor Crothers. Courtesy of Madison House Publicity.