(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Concert review - String Cheese Incident with Bootsy Collins and the Funk Unity Band

28 December 2013 (1st Bank Center, Broomfield CO)

This was the first show of three, leading to their spectacular New Year's Eve blowout. With a different opening act each night, this one relied on Bootsy to jump start the party, which he handled with ease.

Bootsy Collins and the Funk Unity Band
047 Bootsy Collins With his signature space bass, star-framed shades, and P-Funk Mothership Connection, Bootsy Collins has long celebrated a spacey motif in his performances. This show followed that tradition to a T. The band filed onto the stage in astronaut costumes and headgear. They quickly ditched the helmets, kicked off the funk, and  warmed up the crowd a little bit before Bootsy made his entrance.

003 Bootsy Collins
As always, the presentation was gaudy and beautiful. He strolled out in a sparkling gold suit with glitter and tinsel in his hair. His white bass was strung with red strings that stood out at a distance. Later, he'd change outfits into a shiny red top hat and flowing robe featuring a black "Casper the Holy Ghost". His final costume change was more of a reveal to pander to the local crowd: he doffed his robe to show off the Denver Broncos jersey (Peyton Manning, #18) he wore underneath.

017 Bootsy Collins
Covering a range of P-Funk and solo tracks, the show largely followed the standard formula of setting a solid groove, dressing it up with spectacle and crowd-friendly catchphrases, then letting Bootsy pump in the charisma and work the crowd. "Mothership Connection (Star Child)" was my personal favorite, but they hit so many of the classic tracks that everyone with a passing knowledge of the mythos was satisfied. Another fine moment came while Bootsy was off-stage, when the band covered "Them Changes", from Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies. Before launching into it, they educated the crowd on drummer Buddy Miles, who wrote the tune.

028 Bootsy Collins
The stage was filled with personnel: a couple of horn players, drums, guitar, a hype man, four vocalists, a dancer, two keyboard players and a guy playing key-tar. The band also included a full-time bass player to cover the foundation funk while Bootsy used his space bass to play octave-dropped, distorted,  gut-shaking riffs that occasionally bordered on dubstep. Flashy enough under the lights, the bass later became part of the lightshow as it glowed and changed colors.

039 Bootsy Collins
Over the course of the evening, many claims were made attesting to the power of the funk, but Bootsy himself was the greatest testament. It's hard to believe the man is 62 years old. He looked and sounded completely vital onstage. While his crew was tightly choreographed and polished, he floated over the top with a relaxed vibe. Singers danced in formation, the hype man bounced from side to side, and Bootsy ruled over it all with smiles and banter. It was clear that he relished connecting with the audience and feeling our love. Late in the set, he showed how he could shrink a huge arena into an intimate personal space. He climbed over the rail and offered himself to the crowd, dispensing hugs and high-fives. The band called him back, but he still took his time to turn around and finish out the set.

067 String Cheese IncidentOf course, the crowd was really here for the headliners. It seemed like a majority of the fans made the pilgrimage from far away. This was a special show on several levels. Aside from kicking off a New Year's Eve run, the band made it a celebration of 20 years of playing together. The set began auspiciously enough with their version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"/"With a Little Help From My Friends". Aside from the audience, they also got some help from Karl Denson and Chris Littlefield on flute and trumpet. Despite some minor problems with Michael Kang's amp rig, the band had no problem sliding into the flow of intense improvisations punctuated with dreamy interludes.

101 String Cheese Incident
The show really hit its stride when Kang switched from 5-string electric mandolin to the fiddle late in "Little Hands". The tempo picked up and he pulled the whole band behind him as he sawed at the strings and wailed. This was also a great moment to appreciate the tight integration between percussionist Jason Hann and drummer Michael Travis. While Travis generally locked into the beat and left Hann spaces to fill, the two had the beat dancing between them here.

086 String Cheese Incident
Denson and Littlefield came back out for the last two songs of the set. Their tight, high-energy chops were a perfect addition for the jazzy funk of "Black and White". The highlight here was a little bit of head-cutting between Denson on sax and Kang on mando. The pair traded lead riffs, each challenging the other to wilder flourishes. This led into a soulful cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish". Denson sang the first verse and then let Kang take over.

102 String Cheese Incident
After a short breather for the audience to regroup and rehydrate, the second set carried on the sweet flow of genre-hopping jams. The crowd particularly enjoyed "Jellyfish"; the funky beat had us dancing and singing along with Bill Nershi's droll rap delivery. The power of SCI's tidal wash of jams made the set feel timeless. Where Bootsy took us all to his church of funk, this was more of a tribal ritual, where each person found their own focal points and surrendered to shifting currents.

064 String Cheese Incident
The fugue state finally broke when the set ended, leaving only the encore before the drive home. Even this was special, providing a historical context for the band. Nershi started out alone, playing "Down A River" and talking about the group's roots. He was then joined by Kang, Travis, and Keith Mosely for "Lester Had A Coconut", showing off the band's original configuration. Then keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth came out for "Round The Wheel", soon to be joined by Hann to close out the show with the full band. It was a touching arrangement.

078 String Cheese Incident
My only regret for this show is that I would have loved to see Bootsy join in at some point during the main sets. But that's a small thing. Otherwise, the visuals and music provided a great peak experience.

More photos on my Flickr.

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