Happy Birthday, Kyle Hollingsworth!

Today is String Cheese Incident keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth’s birthday. Kyle wasn’t a charter member of the band, but he made minor contributions to Born on the Wrong Planet and joined permanently shortly afterward. Without that first album and a handful of Archived shows and demos, it’d be nearly impossible to imagine their sound without him. What definitely is impossible, however, is to overstate his importance to the evolution of the band’s sound. He helped bring more Latin and jazz fusion elements to the forefront, as well as introducing the electronic sound that, while not without its growing pains, eventually became yet another indispensable piece of the band’s multi-genre tapestry.

Naturally, to celebrate, I’m posting some of my favorite Kyle moments. If you had to ask who I think tears it up more vigorously than any other band member, it’d be a tough choice, and sometimes I might go for Kang, but on most days I’d say Kyle. What puts him over the top is that he’s the one that I most often wish I had his skills, particularly the ones that let him perform some of the sorcery he unleashes on these picks.

1. “Restless Wind”, April 2, 2005

Sounds at first like your everyday garden variety Restless Wind, until the jam segment takes it to the space farm. Kyle starts out noncommittally picking at something that sounds like an electronic banjo. With a little gentle encouragement from Billy, he explores it more fully and turns it into an interesting sort of electrograss hybrid. “Sounds just like Earl Scruggs, doesn’t he?”
This was during the period when Billy was visibly struggling with the more hard rock/electronic direction the band was taking, so bonus points for him feeling this moment and allowing it to happen.

2. “Boogie On Reggae Woman”, November 26, 2011

In which Kyle runs a talkbox through one of his synthesizers during the jam. He’s done this a few times in the last few years, but this was the first time I heard it. If you’ve only ever experienced a talkbox in the context of a certain Peter Frampton jam, listen to this and have your brain cracked wide open. It’s almost a requirement that you have to cover “Boogie On Reggae Woman” to maintain legal jam band status, but a String Cheese Stevie cover is almost always a home run, and this one in particular sails effortlessly into the upper deck.

3. “Rosie”, November 12, 2014

Fall 2014 represented the finest return to form since the boys emerged from hiatus, in some cases even earning comparisons to the rarefied year 2000. It was an especially good time for first sets, with lots of creative segues and song combos. And for me personally, this right here was the best of the best: a first-set-closing “Rosie” at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, with Todd Stoops (of RAQ and Kung Fu) joining in for a double keyboard assault.

When the band’s happy, the fans are happy, and there’s a lot of happy Cheese to go around here. From Billy shouting “More! More! More!”, to Kyle motioning to Todd like, “okay, now go do something awesome on that one over there”, to Todd grinning from ear to ear while pawing at the keys like a cat playing with yarn, there’s nothing here that will let your smiling muscles go slack for even a second. SCI needs to go play at Todd’s house more often.

4. “Chameleon”, April 8, 2002

These days, “Chameleon” has sadly been relegated strictly to a thankless sandwich role, only popping up for about 3-4 minutes in the middle of “Miss Brown’s Teahouse”. In the pre-hiatus days, however, it was a powerhouse standalone tune, and the best one-stop shop for some truly pyrotechnic synthesizer antics. Removing any shred of doubt that this cover is very much the property of one Kyle Hollingsworth is the fact that it debuted on this day, his birthday, 15 years ago, in that legendary year of 2000.

This version, from an otherwise mostly lackluster outing at the Bronco Bowl in Dallas (the last time they’ve been there as a full unit), is my personal favorite. The show itself is kind of a mess, particularly the second set, but since you can get individual songs on Live Cheese, it’s well worth dropping the 99 cents just for it. Of all the filthy funk they’ve ever unleashed on this song, it never got filthier than on this occasion down in Texas town.

(Close second: This one from Interlaken, Switzerland (March 20, 2004). The deciding factor for me is that it stays very low-key for the first five minutes or so, whereas the Dallas one is high-intensity, high-energy, and fire throughout.)

5. “¡Bam!” > “Fuck You” > “¡Bam!”, March 10, 2011

One of the ways String Cheese tried to regain their footing after returning from hiatus was one-offing popular mainstream songs during their big multi-night runs. It wasn’t often successful, but it did result in this salty sandwich that my taste buds can rarely resist revisiting. If it’s true that Cee Lo Green’s golden pipes make Kyle sound like a rusty faucet—and I don’t think even many diehard Cheeseheads would argue that’s not the case—then it’s also true that Kyle can B-3 Cee Lo under the table, as he nimbly demonstrates before returning to finish off “¡Bam!”.

6. “Orange Blossom Special”, June 27, 2002

Kyle slows the train down for a pit stop in Bluestown at the 3:20 mark. This track hails from my personal pick for the best show of 2002, which could easily have been lacking, to say the least, with the band feeling the squeeze of a curfew in the middle of Arkansas, but the band roared out of the gate without even having to take a few warm-up frames, eventually turning in an unimpeachable first set followed by the mother of all second sets, a monster all-segue “Johnny Cash” Dagwood sandwich.

For bonus points, this song segues directly from “Joyful Sound”, making it a direct callback to the storied Incident in Atlanta, although I’m going to put my chips down and make a bold statement here: I think this Joyful>Orange is better than that one. (And I don’t even care that Tony Furtado is on that one. There’s a darker edge to this one that resonates with me. The band really hit a hot streak when the gravity of the fact that almost every show they played would be turning up on CDs in music stores hit them.)

7. “Bumpin’ Reel (Athens Jam)”, May 2, 2014

It’s not the actual song that this moment occurs in, but rather the jam that takes place afterward, tracked separately as the “Athens Jam” on Live Cheese (starts at 10:16 on the linked Archive track). This is where things start to get, as Billy delightfully coined when he was pontificating on the origin of the song “Las Vegas” a few weeks ago, a little squiggly. The whole set is just the right amount of ramshackle, but Kyle especially sounds like he’s having fun during this jam at the 14-minute mark, with the almost T-1000 liquid metal-like synth sound and what sounds like a Birdland tease on the B-3, gearing up to an unusually barn-burning “Close Your Eyes” set ender.

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