It was hot -- wretchedly, unnaturally hot -- inside the Fox Theater as over 600 friends, fans and family members crammed into the dark hall last week, sweating and panting while waiting for a much-anticipated homecoming -- that of the String Cheese Incident to Boulder, Colorado.
On a break between tours, the band announced the free show just a week before the date, and gave away tickets through a lottery on their Web site and a local radio station, KBCO 97.3 FM. The majority of the tickets were held for local friends and family of the band, and the mood of the audience reflected this mix of cousins, girlfriends and fans -- people were quite at home in the cozy venue as they waited for Cheese, occasionally breaking into big grins as they saw a familiar face.
One long batik, a nod to Cheese's younger days, hung above the stage, its white aspen trees and deep blue mountain peaks a perfectly stylized image of Colorado. Its simple beauty drew appreciative comments from the crowd as the emcee reminded everyone how very lucky they were to be in attendance at this tiny theater, for a free show by a band who will be playing the 9,000-plus Red Rocks Auditorium in just two weeks.
The band was relaxed and playful, chatting with friends in the audience and obviously as hot as the crowd. Sweat formed on Keith's brow as he joked about the "small towel" he had been given to wipe his face and hands.
The first set was tame and very song-oriented, focusing on tunes from the new album, Outside Inside, the song that opened the show. It seemed Cheese was using the concert as a warm-up for the upcoming summer tour, playing "Up the Canyon" and "Black and White," interspersed with a fairly standard "Restless Wind" and a raucous "Way Back Home," but without any jams connecting the songs. The album cuts were performed without the studio polish of the recording, but still sounded fairly straight-laced and slightly commercial. Only with the lowdown dirty grooves of "Shantytown" did Cheese really begin to work the crowd, forcing the packed-in-like-sardines dancers to ignore the sweat rolling down their faces and focus on gaining dance space on the cramped floor.
Throughout the first set the crowd had been in constant rotation, evacuating to the relative coolness of the lobby every third song or so, to avoid passing out from the heat. During the set break the audience flooded out onto the sidewalk to regain their composure only to lose it completely during the second set, an intricate and climactic string of Colorado favorites, the SCI songs that capture the high clear mountain sound and wrap it in hot funk.
"Come As You Are" opened the set and established the tone for the rest of the show, driving the crowd into a frenzied groove, desperately searching for more space to move in the packed house. "Old Home Night" was completed by neighbor boy Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd & the Monsters strolling out on stage in a sweatshirt and jeans, electric guitar in hand. He and Billy traded licks on "Lost," and then Mohr launched into a wicked cover of Clapton's "Forever Man" that rivaled the original cut. While it was the first time Cheese had played the edgy tune, they kept up the bluesy drive beautifully while Mohr belted it out, his face straining with each guttural scream -- "how many times can I say I love you?!??!" The crowd went nuts, screaming along with the chorus and pushing their hands up into the thick, steamy air.
After Mohr left the stage SCI launched into a "Barstool" that kept the excitement up, but it was the first bars of Keith's "Joyful Sound" that pushed the crowd further towards heat exhaustion. Moseley took complete ownership with his "phat bass run," making the normally mellow and unassuming song an exquisite segue into a jam that went as spacey as Cheese dares to go. Completely bizarre and fresh, Kyle's high spartan key notes and Kang's tripped-out draws on the bow led the crowd into a musical realm not often explored by SCI.
The jam crested and broke into "Sand Dollar" and then "Round the Wheel," both songs creating such high energy that the members of crowd lost their individual status and became the groove animal, hunching and twisting and sweating as one, immersed in the jam. As the last notes of RTW cascaded through the speakers people wound down and took deep breaths, gulping water. Cheese said goodnight and left the stage but no one moved, waiting for the inevitable encore.
Cheese obliged with a first-ever instrumental cover of the Beatles' Taxman, which they took light and simple, but with deep and dirty hooks. The band decided to rip out a last minute "Mountain Girls," dragging the last ounces of energy out of the crowd and into a blur of flying elbows and stamping feet. The hoedown lasted for one last song, another first, the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia," with Billy bringing Big Head Todd and his harp out for the cover. Mohr got nasty as usual with the harp, then growling out the sinful lyrics while stamping his feet and grinning at the band. By the end of the song, the crowd was beat.
The hometown blow-out that had been predicted by many fans never materialized, instead giving way to a very solid yet predictable first set. The second set, in some ways held up by Todd Park Mohr, eclipsed the band's earlier standard performance, and altogether it was a fine Incident, but not the Cheese dreams are made of. Due to the weeks off or the relaxed state of the band, this show was less about the music and more about the community surrounding the band -- the friends and family, the devoted tour-rats, the Madison House and SCI Fidelity camps, the fans. The Fox Theater is a second home to many Colorado show-goers, but the small space may have restricted the full energy of the String Cheese Incident. Instead of a blow-out, we got an intimate little show with some old friends, which in the end, was all we needed.