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Ritual on the Rocks

String Cheese Incident comes of age in Colorado

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The Samples did it. Big Head Todd and the Monsters did it. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did it. Even Dan Fogelberg did it. It's a rite of passage for Colorado bands. No matter how big you think you are, you haven't really made it until you've played your own gig at Red Rocks.

Friday night it's a coming of age party for String Cheese Incident as they headline a bill with Bunny Wailer and The Solomonic Reggaestra at Red Rocks. The band brings the blending of traditions that conspired to conceive the Incident five years ago out of the rich Colorado musical communities of Crested Butte, Telluride, and Boulder, drawing on equal parts Charlie Parker, Jerry Garcia, The Neville Brothers, and Bill Monroe.

The band started out as a duet playing apres ski in Crested Butte with Bill Nershi teaching Michael Kang to play bluegrass on the acoustic mandolin. Keith Mosely made it a trio when he joined the band from Telluride, followed soon after by Michael Travis on drums, ensuring a quick adios to any traditional notions of bluegrass. The band's identity was solidified when they gave up the full-time skiing lifestyle and moved down to Boulder, where they met jazz pianist Kyle Hollingsworth and convinced him to complete the roster.


Homegrown

The band never looked farther than Boulder, and was never tempted by the musical hubs of Nashville or L.A. "We're not like that," lead mandolin and violin player Michael Kang told the Indy at the band's Boulder office before heading into a rehearsal preceding their ambitious summer tour.

"We're pretty selfish about our lifestyle," added acoustic guitarist and lead vocalist Nershi. "Boulder seemed huge. It was way big enough. After living in Crested Butte and Telluride, we were making the big break to the city."

A traditionally heavy touring schedule has kept the fan base growing for String Cheese, who rely on bringing the music out on the road more than getting their albums on the radio. At its peak, the band's tour has featured 230 shows a year, about twice the current load. "That [schedule] took a very tough toll -- musically and spiritually -- on everybody in the band," Kang said. "It's pretty hard to get it up 230 nights a year."

"We want to tour a little bit less and practice a little more," Nershi echoed. "We don't have enough time to learn all the new songs. It would be nice to have more practice time. It would be nice to make the recording process more of a creative undertaking instead of, "OK, we've got 3 1/2 weeks before we have to get out on tour. Let's whip out a record.' "

"We're trying to just keep on the creative edge," Kang said of the need for continued rehearsals. "We want to be able to test out as much new stuff as possible, refresh ourselves and our sound."


Mountain muses

String Cheese is one of the highest profile acts spreading the "Colorado sound" that has redefined a music scene formerly associated with "Country Roads" and "Rocky Mountain High."

"The lifestyle in Colorado has a big effect on the music that we play," said Nershi. "It's a very active, outdoor lifestyle. Our music makes you want to get up and dance and not stop until we're done because we're like that, we're used to being really active people. We want the audience to be an active participant in the show. So we generate music that makes you want to move, because that makes us feel good."

Kang's acoustic and electric mandolin along with his electric violin are used for the kind of jam band leads that send fans into frenzies of spinning and bopping, but the instrument itself -- along with Nershi's acoustic guitar -- is enough to lock many listeners into the belief that what they're hearing must be bluegrass music.

"Even though we would play some jazzy stuff and some blues stuff," Nershi recalled of their earlier shows, "people would walk up and see me with an acoustic guitar, Mike with an acoustic mandolin, and Keith playing the bass, and people would say, "Oh, they're a bluegrass band.' They didn't know what else to call us."

The band has always seen itself as experimental, trying not to lock themselves into any mode. The Cheese is the natural bandchild of Telluride Bluegrass, which is known for everything but bluegrass. They played their first big gig there, and Kang recalled that the set list included "a Santana cover, a couple African tunes, a jazz standard, and maybe two bluegrass tunes. That's kind of how it is now, on any given night we'll probably play bluegrass maybe two, three, at most four times a night. But it's definitely there. The instrumentation lends itself to it, and we're always looking to become better bluegrass players."

"At the same time we're trying to become better jazz players and funk afro players," Nershi added. There is little question among fans and fellow musicians that String Cheese is rapidly getting better and better with every turning season. They've gone from awestruck fans "watching Sammy or Bela as your jaw just drops to the ground" as Kang put it, to peers and jamming partners with everyone from Bela Fleck to Phil Lesh.


A little help from their friends

Kang recalls the first time they played with Fleck on stage, two years ago in Telluride. "Bela came and played "Impressions' with us on stage. Recently we've been running into him more. At first when we'd run into him we'd just sort of stand and gawk. Now we can make jokes about the banjo."

Last year String Cheese staged the Summer Sessions Tour, hooking up with Galactica, Moe, and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh for a series of shows.

"The idea got presented to Phil," Kang recalled, "and he was really interested in playing with "the new crop.' He was coming off surgery and a life-threatening situation. He was real fired-up to feel the energy and just be able to go out there and play music every night. Lucky for all of us he was willing to tour."

"It was a cool experience," said Nershi. "I didn't know what to expect, because he's pretty high on the musical totem pole and people in that position aren't always easy to get along with, but I thought Phil was pretty good to work with."

The band worked with Phil again this summer, playing The Gorge in Washington with Phil and Friends on a bill opening for Bob Dylan earlier this month. "It's a pretty cool experience," Nershi said a week before the shows. "I've been listening to Bob Dylan since I was a little kid, playing guitar out of the Dylan songbooks." Later this summer they'll play dates with Merl Saunders, The Radiators, The Zen Tricksters, Galactic, Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and, at Red Rocks, Bunny Wailer. The likelihood is high that there will be plenty of set crashing to keep alive the new tradition of collaborative jams.

"Something that can make life a little more interesting for us and our fans too," Nershi added, "is to bring other people that we respect and our fans respect into this String Cheese realm and see what happens when they're added to the mix. Everybody gets to hear some new sounds that wouldn't have been there otherwise."

"There's kind of a brotherhood," Kang observed. "I think a lot of the musicians who are out there share a kind of common vision about what it is we want to do, which is to spread some kind of creative joy into the world."

-- owen@csindy.com

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