The String Cheese Incident stuck the landing of its three-day New Years’ Eve run with a pair of impressive shows at Denver’s beloved Mission Ballroom after an impressive first night of jams. Special guest Judith Hill literally changed the very structure of Cheese and the songs they shared on their collaborations during Friday’s second set, a stellar pair of setlists including covers from AC/DC, Aerosmith, Simon & Garfunkle, Blind FaithStevie Wonder, and Talking Heads.

The middle night of a three-show stand is a deceptively tough one to pull off to everyone’s satisfaction. You don’t have the raw emotion of finally launching the hotly anticipated run and you have to be cognizant of your duty to leave something in reserve for the third night to help kick things up to “Eleven.”

Of these three-show spectaculars, the New Year’s run is obviously the trickiest, with a large amount of those in attendance likely present all three nights and also super fans expecting something incredible day in and day out. Still…the middle night is like the middle child, dangerously easy to under-parent, so to speak. Fortunately for the fans, this isn’t even close to Cheese’s first rodeo and it wisely staked the deck with an “ace-in-the-hole” in the form of Judith Hill, plenty of classics, and the band’s best new song in years on the setlist.

Kicking off the night with “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” quickly yet confidently demonstrated how impressively The String Cheese Incident has grown and diversified over decades of jamming together. While most bands would likely stay closer to their bluegrass roots for a tune of this nature Cheese isn’t one to fight or deny its musical evolution. In fact, one of Cheese’s greatest gifts is its sonic diversity and the freedom it allows to flow through the group’s catalog and wide assortment of styles and genres.

The String Cheese Incident – “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” (Vassar Clements) – 12/30/22

At its best String Cheese is like the ultimate jukebox, with fabulous originals in every category of style and intensity. From the opening chords on Billy Nershi‘s well-worn acoustic guitar and Michael Kang‘s stellar fiddling through Kyle Hollingsworth‘s massive organ runs the band tours through decades of sonic progression into a single song.

The massive crescendo of “One Step Closer” gave way to the night’s first true segue that seemed to dance across the pocket provided by percussionists Michael Travis and Jason Hann and the pulsating heartbeat provided by bassist Keith Moseley, until, eventually, a kick-ass “Bollymunster” emerged from the haze. The psychedelic trance meditations that had the crowd grooving almost unconsciously faded away as the intensity got massively dialed up.

Kyle Hollingsworth, making what would turn out to be his winning bid for the night’s MVP, laid down a beautiful intro to one of Cheese’s newest tunes, “Trip The Light Fantastic”. The track is permeated with the sheer joy that is imparted by Hollingsworth and even the grinch-iest of Grinches will find their toes a’tappin to the pure shining light the song seems to emanate from every note.

Michael Kang took the sparkling conceptual baton for the uplifting, philosophical lyrics and leads of thematically perfect “Shine”. The set-closing stunner had the crowd completely riveted and responsive, a hard-wired loop of energy crackling between the music makers and their delighted listeners. The build and release of the final instrumental phrases toward the end were spectacular and the feeling of launching into space at the absolute pinnacle was palpable even across a digital stream. It was wise of Cheese to take its set break at that point…it’s debatable that any further jamming might quite literally call forth the rapture.

Excitedly, Kang took the mic upon Cheese’s return to the stage to welcome a special guest, singer Judith Hill. Hill, a recording power in her own right, has had the pleasure of working with an assortment of the biggest talents of modern music including Michael Jackson and Prince. After a predictably bright and exuberant take on Stevie Wonder‘s “I Wish”, Hill and Cheese pulled a sultry and seductive take on Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”.

After making it easy for the crowd to fall in love with her with the pair of well-known people-pleasers, Hill picked up a guitar and picked out one of her own tunes, a slow burner called “Cry, Cry Cry”. This gave the guys in Cheese a chance to show off their ultimate chameleon move: effortlessly swallowing their egos and becoming every artist’s dream backing band.

Again, Hollingsworth acquainted himself well, taking part in an ascendant back-and-forth organ-to-guitar segment at Hill’s bequest that notched the song another rung higher. The shattering conclusion seemed to stun Nershi, who noted, repeatedly, that she was blowing his mind. Kang solicited Hill to “Sing on one of our tunes” which set the stage for a lively “Let’s Go Outside” that, admittedly, was a bit of a letdown after Hill’s previous fireworks but was still a fun and unique take on a String Cheese standard.

The rest of the second set was packed full of spacey peaks and valleys that washed over the crowd and before any sense of a time or space could properly be gauged the band was wrapping up a set closing “Colorado Bluegrass Sky”, Kyle Hollingsworth was taking his “MVP of the night” bow, and the band was clearing the stage in the age-old “We need a few second break so let’s all pretend we’re done for the night when we clearly are coming back for at least one more tune” charade that I think we should let fade away like the obvious anachronism it has become.

To no one’s surprise, Hill came back for the encore and gave one of the sexiest takes on AC/DC’s iconic “You Shook Me All Night Long” ever, with a simmering build before exploding into a revelatory widescreen blockbuster all its own. Clearly having fun, the Cheese percussionists even got fast and loose with stage location as Haan and Travis switched positions and showed themselves as versatile in instrumentation as the band itself.

Setlist: The String Cheese Incident | Mission Ballroom | Denver, CO | 12/30/22

Set One: Lonesome Fiddle Blues, Lend Me A Hand, Yo Se, One Step Closer > Bollymunster, Trip The Light Fantastic, Shine

Set Two: I Wish%, Walk This Way#, Cry Cry Cry@, Let’s Go Outside*, Vertigo > Bumpin Reel, Just One Story > Colorado Bluebird Sky

Encore: You Shook Me All Night Long^

% – Stevie Wonder – Judith Hill on Vocals
# – Aerosmith – Judith Hill on Vocals
@ – Judith Hill – Judith Hill on Guitar & Vocals
* – Judith Hill on Guitar & Vocals
^ – AC/DC – Judith Hill on Vocals

With the preludes over it was finally time for The String Cheese Incident to turn over all its cards, including the New Year’s 2022 spectacle-level edition of “The Whole Shebang“. Bassist Keith Moseley opened up the first of the night’s three sets thumping away while also taking lyrical duties helping his bandmates make a “Joyful Sound” and just like that the party was underway. While leaving “Sound” unfinished, Mosely passed the vocal baton over to Michael Kang for a bouncy “Come As You Are”, with a good part of said buoyancy added by Moseley’s bubbling bass work throughout the tune.

The String Cheese Incident – “Joyful Sound” – 12/31/22

Moseley wasn’t even close to finished leaving his mark on the night’s performance, quickly reclaiming lead vocal duties for “Sweet Spot”, a place Cheese and its fans were quite familiar with. Hollingsworth stepped up again, happily following up his previous night’s top-shelf work with a dark and intricate “Don’t Say” which saw some mighty fine pickin’ and grinning on the part of acoustic-wielding warrior Billy Nershi.

Kang stepped back up to the plate to put the hammer down with a “Black And White” that lived up to its outro and final message that closes the tune, indeed taking the crowd higher and higher thanks to the guitarist’s always impressive chops. Now operating at a musical altitude to match the physical location in the Mile High City, the members of Cheese seemed less worried about pacing themselves for the long night and started flat-out throwing down. From Nershi’s climbing “It’s Getting Louder” to first set hero Mosely’s percolating disco bass be-bop for a set closing, all-or-nothing take on the aptly named “Colliding”.

Before launching into a second set opening “It Is What It Is”, Billy Nershi did a quick check-up on the crowd, making sure they were “Getting after it” and judging by the cheers and general rowdiness of the response it was safe to say that the exuberant crowd was doing just that.

An unfinished “It Is What It Is” gave way to “Indian River” and the first moment of the night that found String Cheese firing on all cylinders. The following “Sometimes A River” and “Big Reveal” both seemed musically intent on slowly revving the mighty engine of joy Cheese is known for having under its collective hood. The electronica-infused world music jam that originated out of a collaboration with friends Beats Antique, “Bhangra Saanj”, was the exact moment that the pedal was put to the metal and the musical mile markers began to fly by.

With the fuse now lit and midnight detonations fast approaching Nershi pulled out the biggest tune of the night to that point, Cheese’s classic “Jellyfish”. The story unfurled as it has so many times before, with the now traditional call and response that have grown from this foundational Cheese song. As always it proved to be a rallying point for the band and audience, uniting them as one in the pursuit of peak intertwining of making and sharing and returning of energy; a glowing circuit of love that remained just as vital in finishing the previous night’s incomplete “Just One Story” to end the set.

In show business, timing is everything and it was impossible to ignore the fact that String Cheese was in the finest form of all three nights up to this point at least, at precisely the right moment. Expectations were high, and rightly so, and it was beginning to look to all concerned that the evening might even surpass the already sky-high expectations and aspirations shared by band and fan alike.

The aforementioned “Whole Shebang” collaboration of the band’s own production crews and visual and creative teams led by Hann took a few more minutes than previous set breaks but there certainly wasn’t any complaining being done by the exuberant crowd. With a scant 20 minutes left before the stroke of midnight, the band returned to the stage, clad in matching floral print smoking jackets, cravats, and a noticeable uptick in relaxation. This was finally, the last of work not just for the night but the year itself.

Final opener “Black Clouds” gave the fans some dazzling visual projections of a snowy star pattern. With less than ten minutes before the countdown began the band took a moment to thank everyone for choosing to spend it with them, there in its Denver home. Without a touch of irony, the Cheese launched into a heartfelt take on Simon & Garfunkel’s seminal “Homeward Bound” to a sea of now-lit LED candles. Oh, and what celebration of the concept of “Home” featuring The String Cheese Incident would be complete without its dearly beloved jam “Way Back Home”?

The panning lights began to arch toward the Mission Ballroom ceiling, revealing a vast field of cosmic, internally lit snowflakes that descended over the bliss-drunk crowd as the minute hand inched its way forward. Mid-“Way Back” the band transitioned into an expansive and beautiful take on Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”. The stars began to raise and dip in waves while the legion of LED candles acted as the farther stars creating a sky garden that seemed to meld with the legendary Mission Ballroom mirrorball as the second half of “Wayback Home” led into the mandatory countdown/midnight balloon drop, adding to the well lit cosmic snowflakes. A delightful, wholesomely chaotic vibe, as you might assume, followed in short order.

The String Cheese Incident – “Can’t Find My Way Home” (Blind Faith) > “Way Back Home” – 12/31/22

Poppers, costumed star-lit fairies, and star princes frolicked onstage with a man-sized baby New Year and a champagne toast from the band gave the crowd a chance to hug each other, shake loose and completely discharge the stress of the year at long last. After the briefest of pauses to appreciate the truly blessed scene their hard work had managed to create, the originators of this grand reset got back to their “Home” themed revels to keep from losing any of the momentum they had built up. Talking Heads’ classic “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” kept the effervescent vibe going before String Cheese flowed into a heartwarming and authentic “Sirens”.

When the laid-back and expansive jam culminated into a fiery conga and hand drum duel between Michael Travis and Jason Hann, Cheese could do no wrong in the eyes of this happy, musically punch-drunk audience in attendance. All tension was gone and, practically playing with house money, Cheese was free to slam all the momentum, positivity, and just plain ole’ love in the room into a full-blooded “Texas” that crescendoed and plateaued a dozen times over before dissolving into a delirious, spiraling, inescapable final crash.

Returning for the encore, Nershi spoke plainly about exactly how profoundly he felt the love coming from the crowd over the course of the last three nights. Clearly moved, he thanked them for joining them in their hometown to be a part of the spectacle everyone in attendance was creating together. It was in this moment when the absolute pinnacle of the greatness of The String Cheese Incident was on stunning display; the ability to separate intensity of emotion from musicality, to become a synergistic thing of beauty with layers of auditory energy that the listener tumbles helplessly through. Rather than being pushed or pulled, a stream of energy was created and everyone in the crowd simply flowed through each other, called forth by the lovelight leading their way.

Setlist: String Cheese Incident | Mission Ballroom | Denver, CO | 12/31/22

Set One: Joyful Sound > Come As You Are, Sweet Spot, Don’t Say, Black And White, It’s Getting Louder, Song In My Head > Colliding

Set Two: It Is What It Is > Indian Creek, Sometimes A River, Big Reveal, Bhangra Saanj, Jellyfish > Just One Story

Set Three: Black Clouds, Homeward Bound%, Way Back Home > Can’t Find My Way Home > Way Back Home# > This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) > Hi Ho No Show, Sirens, Texas

Encore: Shakin’ The Tree

% – Simon & Garfunkel
# – Blind Faith
@ – Talking Heads