To close out 2022, The String Cheese Incident decided to play it close to home and ring in the new year at Denver’s musical gem, the intimate Mission Ballroom. Topping out at 4,000 heads, getting to see SCI in such a small venue for three consecutive nights and so close to their own front doors meant that the band and extended community were in for a sold-out homecoming of sorts filled with familiar faces from both sides of the stage. Although the first two nights were billed as having special guests, the New Year’s Eve celebration touted the usual “all cheese, all night” dynamic of genre-bending splendor and what the band brought was nothing short of spectacular. Laying out three sets comprised of 25 songs, the band delivered on the “home for the holidays” theme in a myriad of ways including performing many classics from their earlier years, most of which originated in before the year 2000. The band also invited ticket holders into their cabin for soul-filling refreshments with multiple fireside jams and premiers under the enchantment of a night sky of starlight, snowflakes, a full moon, and visions of the Rocky Mountains.
Arriving within an hour of doors, it was clear that many had claimed their place in one of three lines early on. Of the three, one was reserved for early entry and was filled with VIP purchasers who certainly took the costume cake, dressed to the nines for the occasion. The second one paralleled early entry and was occupied by those who felt that they had one upped the third line, thinking that the narrower opening, a single set of double doors, would move faster when the time came than the line that touted the bulk of the patrons waiting to get in. As general admission drew closer, the VIPs were allowed in, calm, cool, and collected, entering the venue with grins and sequin, ready and willing to give it all over to the new year. Fifteen or so minutes later, security breached the multiple sets of doors and began choreographing metal barricades in a more orderly fashion in preparation for the mass influx who continued to patiently wait. Finally set to let loose the fortuitous fans with a ticket in their hand, the doors opened and the staff greeted everyone with a smile and well wishing. It was about this time that line number two realized that line number three had the upper hand in the decision making as multiple sets of double doors opened for them with line two limited to its single. Chalking it up to cosmic humor, many in that line chided themselves comically about “yet again making more bad life choices” as others around them laughed. Finally inside, what was striking was that the thousand or two that had made it in already weren’t heading for the rail, but for the seats, the majority of positions behind the soundboard already being populated while anyone else could easily walk up to within three rows of the rail, an unexpected dynamic and possibly a reflection of the bulk of old-school fans aging and preferring seats over the rail riding of yesteryear.
Looking around, nary a scowl existed and as the time drew near, The Mission continued to fill with the bubbly energy and positivity that so often defines The String Cheese community.
When the band finally took the stage, Billy Nershi stepped to the mic and threw out an enthusiastic “OOOOOOOOOOhhhhhhhh yeah! How you all doing tonight?”, followed by Michael Kang, “Thank you for spending your last minutes of 2022 with us!”.
With that brief address, the drummers started a beat and one by one the rest of the band came in, getting the evening started with the appropriate anthem of optimism “Joyful Sound”. Certainly, a favorite, bassist Keith Moseley took great pleasure in welcoming everyone in to celebrate, singing the lyrics with a smile and making eye contact with as many fans as possible. At one point, Moseley changed up the lyrics to,”Is what I am singing making sense to you? Come on now, let’s sing like it's 2022”, resulting in a burst of energy from the crowd.
With the final stanza of the opener, Kang shined out over the crowd on the electric mandolin and looking around, everyone in the house was getting down and the band returned in kind with some uplifting jamming, incarnating that joyful sound. The familiar eventually dissolved into an echoey landscape of reverb as the band improvised for a few minutes before building to a deadstop start in the latin magic of “Come As You Are”. Being the only version of 2022, this one was notably detected by listeners as a rarity, many throwing their hands in the air. One great feature of this number is seeing Nershi shred it up on the acoustic with his flat-picking wizardry and this version was certainly abundant with the pirate’s enthusiasm. Midway through, Moseley got an opportunity to lay out the funk, everyone else backing up so he could set up the dance line, eventually rejoined by his bandmates. Kyle Hollingsworth got down with some synth that kept that 70’s vibe going. The strength and solidarity of the Hann / Travis connection kept everyone in line as Nershi and Kang accented in the offbeat. As the energy continued to build, eventually the tune became a game of chase between Kang and Hollingsworth, trading lines and elevating the temperature and tempo until finally the unit broke free, returning to the head and shutting it down. At two songs in and twenty-five minutes of good living, everyone in the room knew it was going to be a great night.
Moseley again stepped to the mic, leading the band through “Sweet Spot”. Hollingsworth twisted his face with enthusiasm as he let loose the Leslie on the fully expecting crowd who cheered him on throughout his big finish. Riding the high, Kyle continued the set, initiating a gnarled “Don’t Say”, again for the first version of 2022. Stumbling a bit with the lyrics and timing, the band finally got a hold of the classic and finished it brightly and rightly to the gratitude of the crowd. Shifting a bit, the band developed into a short jam with a heavy piano feel, hinting at “Will It Go ‘Round in Circles” before leaving it all behind for “Black and White”. Kang nimbly nailed the lyrics line for line and the punchy signature of the piece kept the place dancing. Things got turned up more than a few notches with the anything but standard “Lovelight” closing that has been wiping out audiences for decades with revelry, revival, and revelation as everyone got up on the good foot.
Nershi strummed up “Song In My Head” for the next selection and this Rocky Mountain train on a Mission kept on chugging down the track towards the new year. Again, performed without a snag, it was apparent this far into the first frame that alongside the crowd, the band was having an equally great evening. Hollingsworth washed, no, bathed the crowd in Hammond B-3 goodness and as Billy called out “it’s getting louder, it’s getting louder” over and over, more than a few were seen in the crowd losing what marbles they had left. Splintering into pieces, the song in Billy’s head eventually morphed into the final tune of the set: a jamwich of ridiculousness with “Colliding”. Hann’s conga and djembe accentuations paralleling Travis’ steadfast pace locked this one in place, kept the band on task, and for many, facilitated the melting of face. Nershi pulled out the slide and Moseley stuffed the low end in an effect-filled envelope and the two mixed the funk and blues in all the right ways. Kyle stepped in with the Moog synth and this weird science creation was complete. Getting off on the strange for more than a few minutes, the band finally returned to the form and brought set one to an end under wave after wave of appreciation from the crowd splayed out in front of them.
Before exiting, Moseley stepped to the mic, “Set one, two more to go. Thanks for being with us. Stay hydrated and look out for your friends. Big night! So glad to have you here!”
Getting back to business with set two, Billy chimed in, “Yeah! You guys getting your party on out there? Yeah! Hell of a crowd, hell of a night! Thanks for making it!”, inciting the revelers to acknowledge the magic that was certainly in the air. “It Is What It Is” started set two with its island vibe. Moseley slid down the neck of his bass as Kang rolled out the lines, Kyle adding organ filling while Billy kept the skeleton together before the tune snapped with a barrage of drumming from Hann. The standard jam eventually rendered into odd timings filled with tension and release moments before resolving to a reggae theme. A few minutes more and Billy steered the ship into flatpicking country and swung them all towards “Indian Creek”. Playing in rounds, everyone got a turn fueling the charge and the wellspring infused the room with jubilation. Of note, this would be one of only two visits to the song’s banks since 2019.
“Sometimes A River” saw the return of Moseley to the mic for this crowd pleaser. Presenting a lengthy intro, the warmth of its melody and lyrics makes this one accessible and filling. Hollingsworth broke out “The Big Reveal”, a song co-written with Moseley about some early Grateful Dead experiences and those ‘ah-ha’ moments on the road to musical enlightenment. Starting out with a funky upbeat tempo, this one lightened about four minutes in and the new melody danced around the pop and snap of Travis’ snare. Secure melody splintered into discoursed minors as the room slid into tilt before returning to the resounding theme and ending with a substantial finish before its final stanza. This one would clock in at over fifteen minutes and would be one of the longest pieces of the three-set event.
Taking a minute to pause, Kang donned the violin and drew out the lengthy notes that called to the Middle East, sparking the fire of what would become an incendiary “Bhangra Saanj”. The rhythmic dance delivered by Travis and Hann was engaged from the start and the two fed off each other like serpents devouring their own tails, blurring the distinction of the individual, morphing into the whole. At times, one could spy Kang dancing in place while sawing at the theme.
Billy took another turn with his wildly interesting tale about adventurous women from Santa Fe in his tune “Jellyfish”. This one even got the ‘Dallas Alice’ treatment, as Billy slipped in a rap rendition of Little Feat’s “Willin’”, driving the crowd wild. The end saw the elevated chaos typical of the number, setting the music askew and climbing for the rafters, eventually settling once again with one last warning about Southwestern females. “Jellyfish” morphed into a lighter pattern that carried the crowd for multiple minutes before transitioning to the unfinished climatic ending of “Just One Story” from set two the previous night, provoking elation in all those who were aware of what was happening.
At about 11:30 pm and with the final set-in sight, the band entered the stage dressed in matching jackets, pants, and ascots against a darkened backdrop. Taking a moment to let the crowd take in their fashion choice, the six gentlemen stood lined up, under the spotlight at center stage as the crowd cheered them on, eventually moving to their respective spots. With instruments at hand, the once darkened background lit with a realistic fireplace and window graphic that gave everyone out front the feeling that were being invited into the band’s log cabin living room high up in the mountains, the panes filled with changing images of a full moon and the Rockies. With this addition to the visual experience, the clothing choice now made more sense as these were the kind of outfits one might wear sitting next to a fireplace with a good read and a pipe in hand. On the crowd side of things, a number of community members actively worked to pass out thousands of battery powered candles for the final set of 2022 and asked participants to light them to produce a starry night effect, a task everyone was happy to participate in.
Happy with themselves in their “home” setting and now under the glow of a night sky full of diamonds, Kang, wide-eyed and grinning from ear to ear, began with another PSA, “Here we go into 2023 everybody!”, the crowd meeting the band with a swell of public approval. Billy continued, “Alright!”, while Hollingsworth added, “Final countdown everyone!”, adding a solo comical rendering of the 80’s hit by the band Europe.
The choice for the opener came down in another classic “Black Clouds”. This ten-minute version was laid back and full of quality playing, unhurried and precise. At its close, the band, who has an obvious love for engaging their audiences, took a moment to recognize what a special evening it was and their appreciation for Colorado:
Hollingsworth: “It’s nice to be home for the holidays. Thank you for joining us in our living room here.”
Kang: “We are so grateful to be at our home here in Colorado with you guys. We are going to celebrate our homecoming here with you for New Year’s.”
Nershi: “It was so much to go through for a lot of people that traveled from their homes to come out and join us and we appreciate you all. Thank you very much for getting your butts out here to Colorado to bring in the new year with us. It means a lot. Who lives out here in Colorado? Let me hear you!"
Under a deafening roar of locals, Nershi delivered an acknowledging smile before starting for the first of two of the evening’s premiers in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”, spurring even more holiday cheer from the very full auditorium.
About this time, the snowflakes that hugged the ceiling throughout the first two sets began to descend and lit from the inside. These well-crafted pieces would continue moving throughout the rest of the evening, rising, falling, and changing hue. This dynamic alongside the widespread candles truly made the room something to behold.
With the initiation of a second home song, “Way Back Home”, many were putting together the pieces that the theme of the set was going to revolve around this domicile idea. Lyrically hitting the idea of making one’s way back to comfort, this version checked all the boxes and pushed all the buttons. The transition of the tune resulted in a shift in tempo and inklings of a familiar thread were detected, eventually giving way to the second first timer in Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”, sending goosebumps out through the room. Well played, the tail transitioned quickly back into the final piece of “Way Back Home” and the final five seconds of the New Year countdown. Hitting the stroke of midnight, confetti splattered across The Mission alongside a multitude of balloons as the stage was lit under bright white light. The band was joined by Father Time as well as Baby New Year as champagne flowed into the band’s glasses and their hearts filled with the joy of the spectacle upon all of us. Nershi and Kang addressed the crowd once again:
Nershi: “Happy New Year everybody! Cheers, everybody! We love you! We hope 2023 makes all of your dreams come true! Here is to putting out some good vibes and having a great year."
Kang: “Cheers you all! We love you all!”
With a home full of the warmth and affection that being surrounded by family can bring, the band moved onto the next theme piece with the Talking Heads’ cover “This Must Be The Place”. As anyone knows who has followed this band, this one holds a special place in the fanbase and offers many opportunities for crowd recognition with unifying lines that always elicit good vibe reactions. It was also appropriate given the circumstances, its opening lyric being Home is where I want to be. The song eventually loosed a cosmic jam that added close to six minutes to its ending before shifting into the instrumental “Hi Ho No Show”. Delivered with a blistering energy, the band and crowd were riding the high of celebration and no one could help themselves from getting down.
With a slight pause for libation, an upbeat, Moseley driven “Sirens” thundered out front with its drone and stomp. With the lyric I just want to say I love, And make sure you feel it everyday was met with a flurry of recognition and applause. Jason Hann got to add his Caribbean rap to the middle that resulted in many hands being thrown to the sky.
Making sure that everyone got their turn in the spotlight, the rest of the band paused and paid full attention to the engine room of the group: Michael Travis and Jason Hann. Bathed in pinks and purples and blinding whites, the two took full advantage of the moment, saturating the room in the tribal spirit. The two even took to switching it up, Hann moving over to the kit while Travis man-handled the percussive setup. Under the roar of an appreciative audience, kudos were passed out by the band.
Hollingsworth: “These guys are rocking it! Hardest working band members!”
Nershi: “Give it up for our talented drummers, Michael Travis and Jason Hann.”
Capping the final set of the night and the first set of the new year, “Texas” sealed the deal. Clocking in at sixteen minutes, this was one for the ages. The jam at the interlude built from a slow burn to an apocalyptic firestorm, making up two thirds of the total timing and leaving everyone filled one last time with positive energy and starting the new year off in the most perfect of ways.
Before hitting the encore, Nershi addressed the audience one last time:
“Oh yeah! Thanks so much again for making this such a special night. You all came out in force tonight, line out the door before we even started. Your energy that you are putting out to us, we can feel it for sure! Thanks for making this a real special New Year’s run. We got one more for you here and hope to see a lot more of you in 2023.”
“Shaking The Tree” filled the last spot and came off as deliberate, polished, unhurried. In a year when women’s rights have seen the greatest upset, this one was truly an appropriate closer as much of the fanbase are female. Pulling in the fold once again with emotion and light, the band connected in its final moments of the event with this one centered on a woman’s right to self-determination and self-expression.
Although The String Cheese Incident performed only 29 shows this past year, the band certainly fired on all cylinders for this last night of the solar cycle. Their positive vibe came across as authentic and undisputed and reminded those that don’t see the band as often as they could have, they certainly should make it a point to come out for more in 2023 as the magic and kindred spirit are still alive and well. This fact is not just limited to the band, but encompasses those people devoted to the good life who think of Cheese shows, night after night throughout the year, as home.