The Fourmile Canyon Revival Benefit started its quick life as a small, Thursday night production at the Boulder Theater and wound up being one of the biggest nights of Colorado music in years -- raising more than $300,000 for the Boulder Mountain Fire Relief Fund.
Leftover Salmon kicked off the evening last night at the First Bank Center in Broomfield, with String Cheese bassist Keith Moseley sitting in from the get-go. Guitarist Vince Herman was in fine form (read: not over-served). Always loud and boisterous as always on stage, Vince led the band through some classic salmon slamgrass with mandolin master Drew Emmitt shredding away on the solos.
Phish's Page McConnell joined Salmon on stage after a few songs, sitting in next to keyboardist Bill McKay for the Cajun-influenced Mama Boulet. Washboard player Bonne Crane from Elephant Revival came out next, joining the band in a rousing version of "High on a Mountain Top," with McConnell taking the bluegrass piano lead in the tune. The two keyboardists really shined during Salmon's last tune. McKay's "Just keep Walking" is a bluesy piano romp with boogie-woogie piano that had McConnell throwing down soulful Hammond organ lines over McKay's barroom.
After Salmon's set, stage hands began the massive shuffle of instruments and amplifiers to get Yonder Mountain String Band on stage. Usually, the percussion-less band is very bare-bones on stage -- with only four amplifiers and four microphones -- but as YMSB mandolin player Jeff Austin mentioned in an interview last week, their stage setup for Fourmile included a drum kit. As the crews worked, scenes of slurry bombers dropping chemicals on the Fourmile Fire were shown on the massive digital curtain that hangs above and to the side of each band.
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Yonder Mountain took the stage to a huge roar, which didn't help their muddy sound issues in the first tune. By the end of "Too Late Now," however, sound engineer Ben Hines had dialed in the band and the crisp, flowing guitar solos of Adam Aijala were coming through loud and clear. The band dipped into the distance-appropriate "40 Miles to Denver," with most all of the crowd singing along during the chorus. After getting warmed up, the band brought out Phish drummer Jon Fishman for the rest of the set. Fishman, who has an amazingly light jazz touch to his playing, filled out the band's sound through songs like "Pockets" and "Steep Grades, Sharp Curves." Austin took time between songs to point out the two sections of seats that had been reserved for firefighters and volunteers.
"You guys are some bad-ass motherfuckers," he said to the firefighters and their families. "I'll take you on my team any damn day of the week." The highlight of Yonder's set was the cover of the Talking Heads' "Girlfriend is Better," a song that Fishman has played with the band in the past but not to this level. The song went into an extended drum and stand-up bass jam with bassist Ben Kauffman before meandering into the reggae-inspired "Two Hits," John Hartford's song about rolling one up and smoking it down. Kauffman slyly teased a pot-related Phish song, "Makisupa Policeman" in the opening bass solo, which Austin picked up on and later inserted the first line of the Phish tune into the Hartford song. Yonder's set lasted just over an hour before the great shuffle began again, this time to get risers in place for Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Before Todd, his big head and his Monsters took the stage, though, Moseley came out to acknowledge the people involved with the fund-raising, noting that more than $300,000 in ticket sales had been made -- all of which will be going to help the fire departments who are now struggling for resources, as well as for the families affected by the fire. Similar to efforts to help out Haiti after their recent earthquake, Moseley said a phone donation system has been set up and people can text donations to (303)720-7292. A counter with how much money had been raised so far using the phone system was put up on the curtain, and it almost immediately began increasing.
I know very little about Big Head Todd, other than the fact that they were somewhat of MTV darlings in the early '90s. I know they still have a big fan base, as several people I talked to in the parking lot before said that BHT was the band they had showed up to hear -- but I didn't know anyone personally who was into the band. They came on to some sound issues, but things were quickly cleared up and the band blasted into their set. It was quite the sonic contrast after Yonder's set, with Big Head Todd turning it up to eleven. The band moved through several of their original tunes, ranging from straightforward rockers to funky, Traffic-like tunes. Before going into the hippie-classic that is the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil," guitarist Todd Mohr brought out Emmitt and Herman from Leftover Salmon to a roar from the crowd. The band made their way through the song well and I was glad to hear some Dead being played, but I still never quite got into Big Head Todd and spent most of his set running around saying hi to friends I knew around the venue. It also didn't help that I had found out that Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon from Phish were performing next as an acoustic duo.
As the two acoustic guitars and stage monitors were being set up, KBCO's obnoxious Brett Saunders came out and introduced members of the Gold Hill community who presented an over-sized check to the relief fund for $300,000. As they spoke, the screens above the stage showed that more than $17,000 in additional funds had been raised through the phone-in system. Now I may have misheard, but after the ten-minute check presentation was made I swear I heard Saunders say "and I thought this was going to be boring." Someone should tell him to drop his idiot shtick when he's not on the mic in the studio.
The crowd erupted as Anastasio and Gordon took the stage and picked up their guitars, starting off with a bluesy acoustic version of "Back on the Train" that led nicely into a stripped-down and piano-less "Water in the Sky." Randomly, a giant inflatable penis started making its way around the floor of the arena with the word "Kang" written on it.
Now, for years there has been a jam band nerd battle of whose band is better between Phish fans and nearly every other band out there, and often Michael Kang and the String Cheese Incident is the butt of those jokes and insults. Now, I'm not going to deny the humor of this -- but it was also tasteless to do that during the benefit show (and would have been much funnier at tonight's Phish show).
After the duo finished "Train Song," with its dream-like lyrics and building, train-like rhythmic guitar melody, Anastasio asked the crowd to give the biggest cheer of the night for the firefighters. An eyeball-shaking noise erupted as the 6,500 seat venue turned and faced the section full of firefighters while applauding, hooting and hollering. Anastasio and Gordon finished up their set with a trio of crowd sing-along, "My Friend, My Friend," "Wilson" and "Bathtub Gin" -- the last of which had the crowd singing well after the band had left the stage around 10:20 p.m.
Boulder congressman Jared Polis took the stage between sets, again thanking the firefighters as well as everyone who donated before introducing the String Cheese Incident. With a fury, drummers Michael Travis and Jason Hann went into a powerful tribal rhythm that led the band into the Jean-Luc Ponty calypso-inspired Mauna Bowa. After, the band introduced Anastasio to the stage and together they launched into Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way" with Anastasio singing lead. Nershi, Kang and Anastasio traded solos throughout the song.
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Anastasio was clearly in charge on stage, taking the majority of the song for himself while Kang followed behind. Nershi is easily one of the most talented acoustic guitar players on the scene, which made his choice to play mediocre electric slide guitar in the song even more puzzling. The band wrapped up the cover and Anastasio stayed on for the SCI original "Outside/Inside." Kang and Nershi lead the way through the majority of the song and its changes, with Anastasio sitting back noodling over the melody for most of the song. As the tune took off and the group started to explore, however, Anastasio took hold of the jam and led the band through a dark, Phishy romp with Kang adding in where he could find room.
I've always wondered what SCI would sound like with Anastasio on guitar, and was extremely pleased with the results. Mohr came out later in the set, playing and singing the disco funk of "Who is that Lady?" over Hollingsworth's synth work. The band's set ended with a Colorado cluster-pluck of epic proportions: YMSB's Austin and all of Leftover Salmon coming out for "Sitting on top of the World," "I know You Rider," and finally encoring with Bob Marley's "One Love."
Someone told me that Anastasio was on stage for "One Love," but the stage was so crowded I didn't see him. In a small tribute to John Lennon, who would have been 70 yesterday, Nershi ended the song chanting "alright, alright, alright", echoing the end of Revolution #9.
Critic's Notebook: Personal Bias: Aside from Big Head Todd, I have collectively seen the bands on this bill more than 150 times. By The Way: You can donate to the Fourmile Relief still by texting your donation amount to (303)720-7292 Random Detail: Despite being sold out, there was still plenty of room to boogie down at the 1stBANK Center and it is quickly becoming a favorite venue for me.