Back in the day, as it were, the Winter Carnival was one of the most anticipated dates on String Cheese Incident’s annual calendar, as the shows included excellent opening acts like Warren Haynes, Ricky Skaggs and Martin Sexton. These openers usually sat in with the band and jammed.
It also was a measure of how the band’s following grew. The first Winter Carnival was at the Boulder Theater. It then moved to a two-night, then three-night stand at the Fillmore. Last night at the 1stBank Center, String Cheese played the first of a three-night stand in its first Winter Carnival since the hiatus, and it was like the band had never been away.
From the opening strains of the road lament “Smile,” the band hit a groove. Bill Nershi’s silky acoustic guitar provided a perfect backdrop for a delicate dance of melodic groove from Kyle Hollingsworth on piano and Michael Kang on electric mandolin.
On “Sometimes A River,” after Nershi ripped a rare electric solo, he and Kang engaged in some Allmans-esque twining guitar riffs that added a new dimension to the classic bluegrass-based String Cheese sound.
Not to be outdone by the strings, drummer Michael Travis and percussionist Jason Hann fueled a brilliant “Don’t Say” with a solid foundation of polyrhythmic drumming under Hollingsworth’s barrelhouse piano rolls.
Of course, the band never likes to stray too far from its hippie bluegrass mountain roots, and they debuted a tune that Nershi said celebrated the east coast transplant seeing Colorado for the first time. “Colorado Bluebird Sky” had an instant sing-along chorus that showed off the Cheese at is happy, joyous best.
The band likes to celebrate the Carnival aspect of Winter Carnival by encouraging Mardi Gras costuming at its finest. They are having a Clan Costume contest the first two nights, trying to get fans to represent the “cave-punk” of winter or “flowing energy” of spring. Not to be outdone, Nershi took part, taking the stage for the second set in a silver Rick James-type wig.
After some desultory funk on “BAM!,” the band caught a groove on “Rivertrance.” Kang’s violin playing transitioned seamlessly between Irish and Middle Eastern melodies during a long exploratory jam.
Kang continued with the violin on the Cajun-tinged “Cottonmouth” while Hollingsworth wove in and out of the beat on piano, letting all the fans get their dance on.
The band also tipped a nod to jam band pioneers the Grateful Dead on “Sweet Melinda,” teasing “Slipknot!” during the mid-song jam and finishing with their standard “Lovelight”-esque crescendo.
Back before the hiatus, the band used to do a somewhat disastrous cover of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” Classic hard rock and SCI just didn’t seem to mix well, so when they started Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” to close the second set, I held my breath, worried they might butcher it. Kang paid tribute to Jimmy Page’s classic midsong guitar riff on the electric mandolin in fine style, however, and the fans danced in delirium as the song closed.
Winter Carnival, welcome back!
Todd Radunsky is a Boulder-based photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.