It has been five months now since the announcement was made that founding member Bill Nershi would be leaving the String Cheese Incident. Since then, fans have been running to see any show they can to catch these touring monsters one more time, knowing full well that the remaining members of the band have no plans to tour beyond Nershi's departure. Only a handful of show dates remain, and they promise to be quite a goodbye to the fans.
This is not a band that has been declining in artistic relevance or popularity, but rather might be in the pinnacle of their career. Some may argue this is the best time for all involved to just walk away, and they are probably right. They have been heavily touring the country for over fourteen years now, and have left an indelible stamp in the music industry today. Yet as the saying goes, all things must pass.
Last month, fans flocked to Colorado to witness what was to be the final Winter Carnival celebration. These three shows were the hottest tickets in town as this was likely the last time the members of SCI would ever grace the stage of Denver's Fillmore Auditorium together (barring any future reunion). And those who were lucky enough to get in were treated to no less than what they would expect on any given show night: pure joy.
You could really feel the energy in the auditorium air prior to the Thursday night performance. Many knew this might be the last time they would ever see their favorite band play. But it was not sad, rather celebratory. It was exciting.
A short and bizarre set from The Polyphonic Spree opened the evening. It is not exactly what many fans would have wanted to hear; nonetheless they threw a little extra "weird" into the air. Then a quick transition gave the stage to the members of String Cheese, all of whom seemed fired up and ready to play.
The first set was full of old classics, with the jamgrass favorite "Johnny Cash" kicking things off. It was a great to song to get Billy going, and right away you had the feeling that this weekend was going to be all about him. Following were excellent performances of "Round the Wheel", "Black and White", and "Mouna Bowa". The first half of the evening ended with one of keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth's staples, "Close Your Eyes".
Set two immediately grabbed the attention of the crowd, as the band were joined by members of the Polyphonic Spree and covered the old Blues Image hit, "Ride Captain Ride". It was fun and playful, and many fans were not shy in singing along. It was followed by a jam-heavy version of "Best Feeling" and continued right into "Can't Stop Now".
The evening closed with the long-time favorites "Joyful Sound" and "Way Back Home". Though they were electrifying, they did not eclipse what was a spectacular encore of "Outside Inside" into the Allman Brothers' classic "Jessica".
Night two continued the energy exuberated the previous night by starting off with a rousing "Search". With Billy jumping around and the rest of the band smiling, it was evident another night of great music was in-store. Other highlights from the first set included the bluegrass-rooted originals "Up the Canyon" and "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms".
The remainder of the set turned from bluegrass to the trance rock SCI has heavily incorporated into their jamming the last few years. With the rest of the band in full force, and Billy now on electric guitar, an amazing jam ensued between "Shine" and "Big Shoes". Driving rhythms and churning electric riffs all built to a climactic ending. This flowed seamlessly into the set ending rendition of "Rain"; a perfect first half wrap-up for an already impressive evening. There was a not a still body in the house. However, it would prove to be no match for the remainder of the show.
The second set began with "Bumpin' Reel" and a cover of "The Way You Do the Things You Do". They were both well-performed, and provided the groundwork for what was easily the best stretch of music String Cheese had played all weekend. The adventure that was "Desert Dawn>Black Clouds>Drums>Desert Dawn" was absolutely phenomenal and reminded everyone in attendance why they had started listening to this band in the first place.
The evening then went back to their bluegrass and Latin roots with "High On a Mountain Top" and "Little Hands", before bursting into the inevitable show closing "Miss Brown's Teahouse". This String Cheese signature funk tune was the best choice with which to end the show.
At the time the band came back out for an encore, the Fillmore Auditorium was still at capacity. Those who were exhausted did not give up and head home yet, and they were treated to perfect versions of "This Must Be the Place" and "Dudley's Kitchen". It was another great production of music, and one more night was looming.
The third and final Fillmore show was rumored to be the "bluegrass lover's show". The rumors proved to be true. A band that started primarily as a bluegrass band would close out the run in the same style. They had help as the audience was treated to a down-home warm up session by Chris Thile (Nickel Creek) and his group How To Grow A Band. Those who heard mandolin prodigy Thile play had a feeling he and his band might show up to lend Cheese a hand later in the evening.
The show began with the excellent trio "Restless Wind", "Cedar Laurels", and "Rhum 'n' Zouc". Michael Kang showed off his always amazing fiddle playing on these songs, and once again a jovial Bill Nershi was jumping around the stage.
The set continued with the traditional bluegrass tune "Midnight Moonlight", which segued into the Hollingsworth original "Eye Know Why". At this point Kang pulled the fiddle back out and the band ripped into a long and very spacey "Valley of the Jig". The concert favorite "Smile" closed the set.
As many had hoped, the second set began with Chris Thile and his group joining SCI for a bluegrass extravaganza. "Doin' My Time" and "Wheel Hoss" were played with vigor and grittiness. These nine musicians were meshing well, and the mandolin interplay between Kang and Thile was fantastic to witness.
Always willing to do something a little out of the ordinary, the group surprised the audience by performing a very humorous cover of Devo's "Whip It"; complete with the distinctive red disc hats too. An "Orange Blossom Special" was sandwiched between this unique impersonation, and was highlighted by Noam Pilkeny's fantastic banjo work.
At this point SCI said goodbye to their new friends and finished the evening in old school fashion. The long time popular concert staple "It Is What It Is" began a long stretch to the finish line that also included spirited representations of "Galactic" and "Shine".
As if the evening (and the previous two nights for that matter) did have enough gems, the band returned to the stage of the Fillmore one more time and completed their legacy with "Piece of Mine", "I Know You Rider", and the final closer of "Texas".
For a band seemingly ready to branch out in artistically different directions, they played like it was the beginning and not the end. The 2007 Winter Carnival at the Fillmore Auditorium was indeed a grand celebration of a band that helped build this venue. It was also a great thank you to all the hometown fans that have supported the group over the years.
The remaining dates on the summer tour are sure to be just as grand, all leading back to where it all began: Colorado. The final three shows the String Cheese Incident will be performing are slated for August 10-12 th at historic Red Rocks Amphitheater. It is going to be the last hurrah, and if the band plays anywhere near as good as they did at the Fillmore, then the ending of it all will have been well worth the journey.