SCI Recap: Billy MF Strings Joins the Show as Cheese Deserves Praise as One of Colorado's Best Bands

Courtesy String Cheese Incident
String Cheese Incident filled Red Rocks Amphitheatre for an epic three-night run that was supposed to culminate on July 17 as the Phil Lesh Incident, with the legendary Grateful Dead bassist joining the band. But after the first show, SCI announced that Lesh had gotten COVID and that a special guest would take his place. Several names were dropped, including those of Phish's Trey Anastasio and bluegrass purveyor Keller Williams, but the most popular guess ended up being correct: Billy Strings took the stage Sunday night, wearing a SpongeBob T-shirt.

While the Grammy Award-winning Strings added the show to his long list of what fans consider "torch-passing" moments (he's played with Anastasio, Bob Weir, Billy Kreutzmann and Widespread Panic, to name a few jam overlords), Cheese proved once again that it's Colorado's best jam band. The reasons range from its technical proficiency to range, overall ethos and so much more.

These musicians might even have changed the thinking of the late aesthetic philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who was known for his rigid ideals of objectivity in both art and music and who denigrated most modern music — especially heavy metal, grunge and pop — in 1997's The Aesthetics of Music. While Scruton might not have been partial to SCI's freewheeling ways (he was far from a hippie), the band's dexterous competence and liminal space would have worked his own logic against him.
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SCI has played at Red Rocks 48 times.
Courtesy String Cheese Incident
"When we hear music, we do not hear sound only; we hear something in sound, something which moves with a force of its own," Scruton wrote of "tone," which he construed as "founded in metaphor, arising when unreal movement is heard in imaginary space. Such an experience occurs only within a musical culture, in which traditions of performance and listening shape our expectations." Music without tone, however "imaginary," lacks the "paradigm of musical organization," he wrote.

But Cheese produces that "imaginary space" and "musical culture" in abundance, working off nearly three decades of practice and collaboration. The band brought complementary guest acts into the fold all weekend, with Yonder Mountain String Band joining on Friday and Leftover Salmon on Saturday. And Strings wasn't the only guest star present on Sunday: Infamous Stringdusters' Andy Hall also entered the fray for the bluegrass-heavy first set, joining Strings and SCI on "Dust in a Baggie," "The Remington Ride," "Missin' Me," "Panama Red" and "How Mountain Girls Can Love." Keys player Kyle Hollingsworth had told Westword that at the beginning of his career, late Leftover Salmon banjoist Marc Vann had inspired him to play keys like the banjo, and Hollingsworth proved that this weekend.

Scruton also wrote that spontaneity is key to tonal metaphors that separate impassioned music of the likes of Louis Armstrong from mass-produced, "cheerless" pop music; Cheese certainly has no lack of spontaneity. According to Hollingsworth, the band hopes to emulate the way members of the Grateful Dead were able to almost read each other's minds on stage, creating concise jams in which each player had his moment, as well as slick collaborations. And Cheese has definitely succeeded.

The Grateful Dead set on Sunday was a phenomenal display of the band not just covering masters, but even enhancing their songs with SCI's own flavor. "Estimated Prophet" brought down the house with groovy jams between guitarist Bill Nershi and Strings; Hall came out once more for "Pretty Peggy-O"; and the crowd erupted at the best cover of "Shakedown Street" we've seen, with Strings stealing the show.

In that crowd: old friends in their seventies wearing faded tie-dye and Grateful Dead and RatDog caps, who embraced each other between jigs; a family with three children under the age of ten who were dancing or playing with origami the entire time and never asked to leave; several groups of "spinners" on the stairs, dancing like dreidels in the same spot. Bubbles were blown through the air and ribbons were unfurled across the crowded steps and held up by fans; the scene looked just like those old videos you find of Grateful Dead sets, with strangers who suddenly see each other as family.

While Scruton might have been more given to works by Franz Joseph Haydn, even when you apply the most rigid standards, String Cheese Incident stands its ground as one of the best bands to come from this state.

See the entire set lists from July 15-17 here.
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Emily Ferguson is Westword's Culture Editor, covering Denver's flourishing arts and music scene. Before landing this position, she worked as an editor at local and national political publications and held some odd jobs suited to her odd personality, including selling grilled cheese sandwiches at music festivals and performing with fire. Emily also writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal and is an oil painter in her free time.
Contact: Emily Ferguson