Nearly thirty years have passed since a ragtag crew of ski bums in Crested Butte formed the jamgrass band now known as the String Cheese Incident. Over the decades, the improvisational act has released ten albums, showcased razor-sharp instrumentation around the world, and delighted fans with stadium-smashing, theatrical antics.
Despite widespread fame and acclaim, the Colorado-bred band — composed of Michael Kang (acoustic/electric mandolin, electric guitar, and violin), Michael Travis (drums and percussion), Bill Nershi (acoustic guitar, lap steel guitar and electric slide guitar), Kyle Hollingsworth (piano, organ, Rhodes and accordion), Keith Moseley (bass guitar) and Jason Hann (auxiliary percussion) — still loves a hometown tour.
“There's a Colorado mountain town culture that’s weird, and we’re weird,” Kang explains. “That's us, you know. Even though I live in Santa Cruz [California] now, anytime I come to Colorado, it feels like home to me.”
The sextet has returned to its roots this week for a five-night run, culminating in three concerts at Red Rocks, running Friday, July 16, through Sunday, July 18.
“Colorado is definitely the band's home state, undoubtedly,” Kang says. “We’ve played more gigs here than anywhere else, for sure, and we’re excited to be back.”
Taking a walk down memory lane with Westword, Kang shared his favorite Colorado gigs:
1992: Crested Butte Variety Show
The String Cheese Incident formed in Crested Butte in the winter of 1992. Kang recalls that El Niño had hit, and snow dumped on the town all season long.
“We weren’t there to be in a band. We were just there to ski powder,” he says, laughing. “Billy had lived in Telluride for years but needed a change, so he ended up living out of a bus in our drummer Travis’s back yard during the winter. Meanwhile, I had just got back from Alaska where I was guiding rivers, and Keith, the bass player, had moved to Crested Butte, so we were all together.
“The local performing arts center was hosting a talent show,” he recalls, “so we literally put together the band, learned four songs together, and people liked it.”
1993: New Year’s Eve at the Depot
“Because Billy had lived in Telluride for so long, he was invited to put a band together for a New Year's show at this spot called the Depot,” Kang says. “And that was our first real show. Up until then, we hadn’t been a real band. We were just getting to play shows, so we figured we might as well rehearse and give it a real shot.”
1994: SCI’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival debut
Nershi’s first bluegrass band, the Rusty String Band, was invited to open the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for $500. But since the group had disbanded, Billy brought the opportunity to the String Cheese Incident.
The guys spent all winter rehearsing, playing weekly at Crested Butte’s legendary dive bar, the Forest Queen.
“It’s funny that one of our first real gigs was opening the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, because I wasn’t even into bluegrass at the time! But we just had a blast doing it,” Kang recalls.
Various years from 1996 to 2013: SCI becomes a Telluride Bluegrass Festival staple
Since its humble beginnings opening the festival, the String Cheese Incident has been invited back to perform six more times over the years. Kang's favorite parts of the festival are the superjams, playing alongside friends and heroes including Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor and more.
“They're our idols, really, because they are not only the best players of their generation, but also totally groundbreaking musicians,” he says. “We worked our way up through the ranks of being this group of ski-bum musicians that actually got good enough to hang with them.
“Hang is a very loose term,” he continues, and laughs. “They'll still pick circles around any of us. But actually getting to join them on stage and have them sit in with us is always a great reminder that it is family.”
1997: Recording the first live album at Boulder’s Fox Theatre
“Fox was our dream gig when we first moved to Boulder, so it’s amazing that we were able to record our first live album there,” Kang says, as he explains the back story behind String Cheese’s self-titled live album, A String Cheese Incident.
1999 to 2021 (minus a few years): Annual Red Rocks ridiculousness
The String Cheese Incident has performed at Red Rocks almost forty times since debuting at the famed venue in 1999. The band loves to pull a theatrical stunt and has dazzled crowds with trapeze aerialists and skydivers soaring over the crowd. Kang smiles as he recalls the group's 2017 run when he and his bandmates repelled down from the rafters of the stage to the Mission Impossible theme song.
Various years from 2001 to 2017: Winter Carnival
Back in 2011, the String Cheese Incident dreamed up its Winter Carnival concept, where fans sport their best Mardi Gras costumes and the band hosts special sit-in guests at such Colorado venues as Vail’s Dobson Ice Area, the Fox Theatre, the Boulder Theater, the 1STBANK Center and Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium. Some of Kang’s favorite guest performers include Vassar Clements, Zap Mama, Little Feet and the Polyphonic Spree.
2014: Climbing light poles at the University of Colorado Boulder
To celebrate the String Cheese Incident’s twentieth anniversary, the band teamed up with the Fox Theater crew to host a free campus show for University of Colorado Boulder students. The hilltop performance was so crowded that attendees went to incredible lengths to catch a glimpse of their hometown-hero band, including climbing light poles and sneaking onto neighboring rooftops.
“People literally crawled over all the buildings. It was very, very cool to see,” Kang says. “People love free shit!”
2017: Ski-to-Show in Telluride
Staying true to their ski-bum roots, the members of the String Cheese Incident teamed up with the Telluride Ski Company to found a free mountaintop show for fans. Skiers who'd purchased a lift ticket at Telluride Ski Resort took a break from hitting the slopes and were treated to a truly renegade pop-up performance.
“Nobody had done this concept before,” Kang explains. “And in order to get to the show, you had to have skis on. You couldn't just walk up there or take a lift. The people on the mountain are our friends, so we basically had this show with all our friends.”
2018 and 2019: Dillon Amphitheater
This year's two-night run at the Dillon Amphitheater marked the String Cheese Incident’s fifth and six performances at the idyllic venue, which Kang refers to as one of the most beautiful he’s played.
“It's just so picturesque looking out over the lake,” he says. “Anytime we go back to the mountain towns, we still have a ton of friends that live up there, so it kind of harkens back to our roots. Even though I never lived in Summit County, it feels like a homecoming.”
2018: Playing a Red Rocks encore with a dubstep cover of Led Zeppelin's “Kashmir”
The bluegrass outfit first started covering Led Zeppelin's iconic song “Kashmir” back in 1999, but the first time the band put a dubstep spin on the sonics was during a 2018 Red Rocks Run.
“Even though we're like the old-timers, we're pretty open to all different sounds and experiences,” Kang explains. “When we did the dubstep cover, people were like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ Some people were like, ‘I hate dubstep,’ while others were like, ‘That was the coolest thing ever.’ We don't try to please everybody, but we try to have as much fun as possible.”
String Cheese Incident plays Red Rocks July 16 through 18. For more information, go to AXS.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.