Continuing with its walk through a 20-year musical history, String Cheese Incident played one of its best sets of 2013 while trotting out a variety of guest artists who have sat in with them over the years. As such, this second show of String Cheese Incident’s New Year’s Eve run at the FirstBank Center felt much more like the band’s old Winter Carnival runs.
The Flaming Lips opened, and while it might seem a strange pairing, the two bands have played together before. Singer Wayne Coyne stood on top of a podium-like structure that was covered with tube-like lights that mimicked the light show on the screen behind the band. Coyne also held a doll baby in his arms for the first four songs, and told an anecdote about how drunk he gets with String Cheese Incident before shows. Some of the material from the band’s new album, “The Terror,” seemed on the dark and ambient side, but the best-received song was a cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Coyne also made frequent references to marijuana being legalized in Colorado, and he and Derek Brown joined String Cheese Incident early in its first set on a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” a song whose lyrics seem to directly contradict what Coyne was ostensibly celebrating.
String Cheese Incident’s first set, which was very fiddle-heavy, kicked into high gear early on “Sometimes a River,” with Michael Kang and Bill Nershi playing off each other before synching up for a stereo riff. The harmonies on the final verse and chorus seemed to play off the energy of the crowd. On the ensuing “Rhum ‘N’ Zouc,” Kang got into a jam with drummer Michael Travis and percussionist Jason Hann, having fun by playing a fiddle riff and looking at one or the other and getting them to step up in a call-and-response type jam.
Set one closed with a long jam out of “Best Feeling” on which Kang and Nershi each took turns leading the jam into new directions, sometimes laying back in the pocket to find a slow, rhythmic groove and other times teasing out funk and jazz solos over it. This led into classic Nershi tune “Restless Wind.” On a mid-song jam, Kang traded his electric mandolin for his violin, starting a jam with delay-drenched slow lines before building up the speed and intensity and using Kyle Hollingsworth’s piano lines to launch the song into a furious finish.
At the start of the second set, String Cheese Incident was joined by horn players Karl Denson and Chris Littlefield of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, as well as Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. The funk ramped up on several jams, with the horns adding pop and punch to “Miss Brown’s Teahouse.” On “Impressions,” Denson traded sax for flute as he and Littlefield painted spacey soundscapes over a jam anchored by Nershi and Kang. The jam provided a perfect base from which all could explore and weave in and out of different themes.
At the end of “Impressions,” Nershi again mentioned that Berlin had produced Cheese’s album “Outside and Inside,” and that they were trying to bring up a lot of old friends, before he introduced Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo. Hidalgo started the next jam gradually, with some staccato chords, before launching into a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha.” Hidalgo took a long mid-song solo that was full of grit and dirt. At the end of it, Hollingsworth slowed the pace down, spinning out some delicate grand piano lines while Nershi played off them on his acoustic guitar.
One of the best parts of this New Year’s run is seeing String Cheese Incident dig deep into its archives for rarely played gems. The crowd was thrilled when Nershi started playing the mostly acoustic song “Barstool.” Kang even pulled out an acoustic mandolin, a tip to the band’s early days before Kang moved into a more electric sound.
Throughout much of the second set, bassist Keith Moseley threw out bombs on his bass that shook the arena and could be felt through the floor, none more so than on “Joyful Sound.”
On the encore, Keller Williams, who got his start opening for String Cheese Incident at shows in Colorado, came out and started into the title song of the album the two acts recorded together, “Breathe.” Out of a long jam that had an almost reggae beat underneath it, Williams launched into a funky cover of Lorde’s “Royals” where Williams encouraged Moseley, Travis and Hann to keep the reggae beat going and step out above the guitars and mandolins.
Set 1: BollyMunster, Sometimes A River-> Rhum N Zouc, Okie From Muskogee1, Song In My Head, Best Feeling-> Restless Wind
Set 2: Rosie2, Miss Brown’s Teahouse2-> The Chicken2-> Miss Brown’s Teahouse2, Impressions2, Bertha3, Barstool, Joyful Sound-> EOTO-> Close Your Eyes4, E: Breathe5-> Royals5-> Breathe5
Notes: 1with Wayne Coyne and Derek Brown (The Flaming Lips), 2with Tiny Universe horns and Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), 3with David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin, 4with David Hidalgo, 5with Keller Williams
Flaming Lips Setlist
Look … The Sun is Rising, The Terror, The W.A.N.D., Silver Trembling Hands, Race for the Prize, Try to Explain, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Butterfly How Long It Takes to Die, Turning Violent, Spoonful, Do You Realize
Seth McConnell is a member of YourHub at The Denver Post and a regular contributor to Reverb.