Golden hills rolled gently behind the stage. In the opposite direction, an expansive range of mountainous peaks sprawled in a breathtaking panorama. The legendary big sky of Montana extended into infinity – a phenomenon one must witness to realize how the state truly lives up to its title. In the center of all this splendor, an intimate audience glowed with jubilation, welcoming The String Cheese Incident back to Missoula for the first time in fourteen years. Throughout their two nights in a lush field behind the Big Sky Brewing Company, the band made it very clear how pleased they were in returning to Montana. Hailing from Crested Butte, Colorado, they always have conveyed a heightened sense of comfort when playing mountain towns. The relaxed atmosphere set the tone for a pair of shows revealing The String Cheese Incident at the apex of its powers. Timing often proves to be an overriding factor in life’s finest moments and such was the case for me in making a triumphant return to the realm of the Cheese. From 1997 – 2002, I was head-over-heels for this band and saw them as many times as possible. The passion began to fade and Cheese shows no longer ranked on my priority scale. Over the past two years, I’ve heard friends rant and rave about how well the band is playing. Occasional listening didn’t seem to back this up and my skepticism persisted. It took an alignment of the stars, circumstances and a bit of subtle nudging to magnetize me to Missoula.The majority of my doubt didn’t lie so much with the band’s musical prowess, but more so the selection of new material they’ve been focusing on. Perhaps receiving the subconscious memo that a retro focus was just what the doctor ordered, the band dropped jaws midway through the first set with a shocking bust out. On the shelf since 2007, “Bigger Isn’t Better” adopted a fresh identity as a piece of slow-burning, bluesy reggae psychedelia. The lyrics could not have been more apropos considering the sparsely-attended concert and the simplistic spirit of Montana. Patience is a virtue with this band as they never rushed any of the songs, allowing their potential to fully blossom.The old school momentum continued in the second set when the band used “Rhythm of the Road” as a springboard for dynamic exploration. This 18-minute version soared on the wings of a sinister melodic theme spearheaded by Michael Kang’s mandolin wizardry. Bill Nershi’s newfound (at least to me) propensity for playing electric hollow body or Telecaster is an exciting addition to the band’s arsenal. Both Kang and Nershi’s manipulation of tones creates layers of intrigue within any given song. The kinetic energy collided in the set-closing climax, “Roll Over.” This song’s glorious intro continues to offer one of the most euphoric moments across the jam band landscape.If the first night in Missoula was great, then the second has to be considered an instant classic. From start to finish, the show oozed with swagger, continuity and creativity. The band vocalized its exuberance in having spent the day on the nearby Clark Fork River. Their state of bliss was infectious, permeating every aspect of their performance. “Little Hands” galloped onto the scene like a beloved, old friend. The lyrics carried extra poignancy and weight delivered in these timeless surroundings.He’s been with them for awhile now, but Jason Hann is still the new guy. His addition was a stroke of genius, as Michael Travis is left to channel the full scope of his rhythmic mastery into pacing the Jaguar as it roars around the track. His ninja-like agility and field of vision guide him to put the pedal to the metal at just the right time. Hann is enraptured with his many toys (his expertise on the talking drum is worthy of universal renown), applying tribal nuances which do more than just complement the whole. He is an entity of his own, repeatedly standing out with both his playing and rainbow unicorn smile.String Cheese covers a vast range of styles, all of which they make their own. They were founded on bluegrass and still draw from that well. However, it’s the jazzy, tropical, Cheesy twist on this discipline which is even more compelling. Following a seamless, riveting transition from “Little Hands,” “Indian Creek” was a definitive example of how “on” the band is right now. The synchronicity of all their moving parts is remarkable. This spritely, instrumental journey encapsulated so much of what makes anyone love them. But it wasn’t just oldies paying dividends. New material like bassist Keith Moseley’s bouncy “Sweet Spot” and Kang’s “Believe” fit gracefully into the repertoire.Funk aficionados were gleefully satiated after a relentless ride through “Pack It Up.” The Herbie Hancock-esque instrumental saw Moseley bully his way through the mix, gurgling like a river rapid while an animated Hollingsworth explored his whole bag of tricks. Moseley continued his tear in the second set, belting out The Beatles deep cut, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” Coming out of left field and starting on a dime, the Abbey Road track ended up being the improvisational centerpiece of both nights.String Cheese jamming is defined by intricate, yet organic calculation. There is no meandering. They know each other so intuitively, they are the definition of symbiosis. Blazing new trails under the big sky, this transcended any casual assessment of spontaneous sonic creation. The magic continued with a march through the inevitable “Rivertrance” which, when presented in open air, is utterly massive, primal and spiritual. Combined with the sacred geometrical projections on the screen, this can be perceived as aural therapy. Speaking volumes to the band’s feelings about their fresh crop of compositions, they culminated the masterpiece of a set with Kang’s hauntingly seductive, rhythmically complex ode to his wife – “Beautiful.” He has achieved a maturity and precision in his vocal delivery which sounds better than ever.I don’t know if it’s always like this; it’s hard to imagine how that would be possible. But for these couple days in Montana, we bore witness to a band plugged in to a powerful source of inspiration. A band devoid of ego and totally in tune with each other. Six men who emanate a sense of reverence with their past and contentment with the present. A group which honors where it comes from and relishes where it’s going. Most importantly perhaps, over 20 years in to a roller coaster of a career, having as much fun as ever.
Team USA’s men’s volleyball roster for the Rio 2016 Olympics featured eight first-time Olympians, four of whom are younger than the youngest player from the 2012 squad. One of these four was Micah Christenson, who graduated from USC last year.Months before Team USA played in the 2012 Olympics in London, Christenson made his USC debut. As a freshman, he was named 2012 AVCA and Volleyball Magazine National Newcomer of the Year and 2012 MPSF Freshman of the Year. He made All-MPSF second team and was the only freshman named to the AVCA and Volleyball Magazine All-American second teams.“Micah was a leader from the moment he walked on campus, and [he] set our team to the Final Four and a National Championship appearance,” former head coach Bill Ferguson said. “He had an immediate positive impact on our teams at USC. He was ultra focused from before day one. He has a matureness beyond his years; [he is] very attentive to fine technical detail and has the ability to retain tons of information from film study.”Years before attending USC, the Hawaii native exhibited his innate ability to set a volleyball like no American before him. At age 16, Christenson became the youngest setter ever to play for the United States in a world championship when he represented the Boys’ Youth Team in 2009.The bright setter ultimately came to USC to pursue the goal of making an Olympic team. After deep playoff runs in 2011 and 2012, the Trojans were considered a perennial powerhouse, believed to be capable of reaching the championship every year. But Tony Ciarelli, Christenson’s former teammate at USC and Team USA, noted that was not the case.“I’m sure he thought we would be in the Final Four and in the NCAA Championship multiple times after that year,” Ciarelli said. “We all thought that, but that’s not how it works all the time.”Christenson’s final three years at the Galen Center were turbulent times for the program. While he developed into the nation’s best setter, the team never managed another run to the Final Four. It had a losing record in 2013 and Ferguson was let go after the 2015 season.Still, Christenson, a three-year co-captain, three-time AVCA All-American and two-time winner of the Off the Block Lloy Ball Award — presented to the nation’s top collegiate setter — always cared about the team first and foremost.“The fact that he was about the team’s result meant everything when it came to the chemistry of the team on a day-to-day basis,” said USC teammate Chris Lischke, who graduated in 2015.Lischke and Christenson talked a lot about playing for the national team and — one day — the Olympics, and Christenson’s opportunity came earlier than expected. In 2013, he made his debut with the national team at the NORCECA Continental Championship. In his debut, Christenson was named a Tournament All-Star, Best Server and Best Setter.The 6-foot-6 setter is built to serve, set and block, but his leadership on and off the court makes him one of the best setters in the world. Humility, competitiveness, attention to detail, work ethic and volleyball savvy are just some of the traits that have enabled Christenson to ascend beyond collegiate prowess to becoming one of the premier setters in the world.“He is one of the only players that I was able to coach differently,” current USC men’s volleyball head coach Jeff Nygaard said. “I never really told him that you have to do it this way or that way. With him, I simply told him that the best in the world that I’ve ever seen were able to do this or that, then I left him alone to work on it. Some of the more complex things took a while to materialize for him, but he always assimilated the upper level abilities.”Christenson never won a national championship at USC, but Ferguson sees a silver lining amid the disappointment. He believes it is because of the adversity Christenson faced on the court at USC that he has quickly become an astute leader despite his youth.“We struggled as a team his sophomore year, and he was very frustrated,” Ferguson said. “Micah took it to heart and worked and learned a great deal about leadership and people. He used that adversity to grow as a leader and led our teams well his final two years.”In spite of the team’s struggles, Christenson developed the tools to lead on the biggest stages. Months after graduating, the 22-year-old was named Best Setter at the FIVB World Cup, where the United States won gold.Heading into Rio, all eyes were on Christenson and Team USA. Though these games were the last for some veteran players, they were the first for the next generation of U.S. stars headlined by Christenson.Following a dismal start to the Olympics in which Team USA lost back-to-back matches to Canada and Italy in pool play, the United States rebounded with a four-set win over Brazil, propelling Team USA to a four match-win streak that culminated in a semifinals rematch with Italy.Italy beat Team USA in a heartbreaking five-set comeback that ended gold medal dreams at Rio for U.S. teammates young and old. On Sunday morning, the deflated United States seemed unprepared for Russia in the bronze medal match, losing the first two games. Then, the young team — sparked by Christenson, its indomitable setter — stormed back to win three straight sets to earn an Olympic bronze.For USA, the bronze is not ideal, but it is a step forward in the right direction — a return to Team USA’s winning heritage.Nygaard speculates this year’s games is a stepping stone for Christenson on his path to becoming one of the best setters of all time. Lischke thinks Christenson will remember the games as “bittersweet.”“This USA team has had quite a bit of success in this quad to show that they had a chance to go for a gold medal in this Olympics,” Lischke said. “It was a tough loss to Italy after having battled so far back in this Olympics after losing the first two games that it crushes you to come up short. But Micah also is aware that he has been blessed to compete for an Olympic medal at all, regardless of the color on it.”Ciarelli believes Christenson will cherish these games as a result of what he learned at USC. Because he only got to the Final Four once despite all notions, preconceptions and projections, he told Ciarelli just before the games that he would treat Rio like it will be his only Olympics.One Final Four or two, one Olympics or three, bronze or gold, Christenson’s legacy will only partially be written by his performance as a setter. At 23, he has already left and continues to leave his mark as a consummate competitor, teammate, friend and Trojan.“During my time at USC, our standard was to be above reproach: Academically, athletically and socially,” Ferguson said. “Micah probably embodies that more than any other student athlete I coached at USC. He’s the guy you want with you when the going gets tough … He’s the guy you want on your team. He’s the guy you want your son to grow up and emulate.”