The String Cheese Incident’s triumphant return | VailDaily.com

The String Cheese Incident’s triumphant return

Aaron Butzen
Vail Daily correspondent
Vail CO Colorado

Special to the Daily/Aaron Butzen

Apparently all the String Cheese Incident needed was a warm-up.

The first two nights of the band’s sold-out, three-night return to the stage at Red Rocks this weekend were as different as are RuPaul and John McCain. Night 1 was mostly lethargic and awkward, with the Colorado boys never quite achieving synchronicity, but Night 2 was more true to form – triumphant, ecstatic, flamboyant cheese magic.

The String Cheese Incident, formed in Crested Butte and Telluride in the mid-1990s, rose to jam-band glory with the speed of weed smoke in the wind, rapidly amassing a loyal following of hairy, psychedelic creatures and dragging them around the country on extended tours. Almost as quickly as the band appeared, it was gone: In 2007, the group disbanded, probably due to musical differences. Side projects sprouted like springtime buds, and the band only played one official show before announcing seven concert dates for 2010.

With heaps of dazed fans left wanting for several years, anticipation was running high in the hippie headquarters that are the Red Rocks parking lots on Friday. Unfortunately, perhaps due to pressure, rustiness or just having a bad night, Night 1 just didn’t deliver despite a relatively strong set list. The music was hard to hear at times in the upper half of the amphitheater, and the band-crowd connection was generally absent. Fan favorites “Round the Wheel” and the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” appeared in an unusual spot at the beginning of the first set and were wasted on a still-acclimating crowd. The show caught fire at the end of Set 1 with “Best Feeling” segued into “Outside and Inside,” but the set break appeared just as the show was getting its legs.

Set 2 was better, but it also seemed to accelerate slowly and then stop abruptly once it got up to speed. A first-time cover of MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” and the original funk-rocker “Black and White” were highlights but still couldn’t quite elevate the show to the level of fan expectations. The aptly named “Brand New Start” encore was short and uninspired, and the crowd seemed a bit shell-shocked as it shuffled out of the venue.

However, Saturday brought redemption and then some. The energy of the crowd was noticeably higher from the get-go, and the band was enthusiastic and almost giddy as it busted into its bluegrass gem “Restless Wind” to start off the evening. The first set moved like a freightliner through the band’s early catalog, hitting the happy island jam “Mouna Bowa,” the samba-funk instrumental “MLT” and the trademark “Jellyfish” hangover song-story along the way. The crowd devoured every second of it, dancing, singing along and generally hooting with manic intensity. The set break after “Black Clouds” gave 10,000 breathless fans a chance to rest, recharge and restock beers, but the amphitheater seemed antsy for Chapter 2.

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As well it should have been. Set 2 was a barreling VW bus of a set, a true symbiotic, ecstatic experience and a reminder of why tickets for the weekend run sold out so quickly. The upbeat “Desert Dawn,” The Police’s “Synchronicity I” and a tribal, trancey “Bumpin’ Reel” got things started, and a monster “Birdland>Blackberry Blossom>Birdland” was followed by “Way Back Home,” an uncharacteristic yet welcome “Hava Nagila” and the unabashedly fun bluegrass of the song “Johnny Cash.” The set ended with the epic favorite “Rollover,” which let the group show off its stylistic chops and sent the crowd into a frenzy of cheers and freestyle dancing.

The band returned for its encore and seemed as grateful as the audience did that this magical mountain experience was taking place. After a well-received “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” the band settled back in for a nearly 20-minute version of “Texas.” As frosting on the cake, pyrotechnic paragliders circled the skies above the crowd during this song’s jam, shooting sparks from their vehicles and adding to the sensory cornucopia already offered by the music, the light show and the medley of glowsticks being wielded and thrown in the air by the crowd. The unusually long and eventful encore eventually came to an end, and the crowd seemed to sigh collectively as the band left the stage – of course the show had to end sometime, but no one was quite ready for that inevitability to arrive.

Luckily, it didn’t, at least not then. The stage lights stayed on, and the band quickly returned for an extremely rare second encore, delivering a sing-along version of Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)” to an ecstatic, grateful and completely moved crowd. The show finally did end after that number, but the String Cheese Incident proved that its glory days are far from an end. While the band’s future is still uncertain, and it appears that “incidents” such as this one will be few and far between for the time being, if only a handful of them are as successful as Saturday’s, it’ll be worth all the waiting in the world.