String Cheese Incident Continues Food Donation Tradition During Thanksgiving Shows

The String Cheese Incident will play Mission Ballroom this thanksgiving.
The String Cheese Incident will play Mission Ballroom this thanksgiving. Jacqueline Collins
Conscious Alliance first partnered with the Colorado-based String Cheese Incident at the Fillmore Auditorium nineteen years ago, with the goal of supply meals for families in the area facing food insecurity.
By the end of the three shows, which ran from March 21 to 23, 2002, 4,000 meals had been collected. The secret to the nonprofit food drive's success was offering limited-edition posters to concert-goers in exchange for non-perishable food items — a tradition that will continue during the run of shows that begin tonight, November 24, at the Mission Ballroom.

The Boulder-based nonprofit continues its mission two decades later with expanded operations throughout the U.S. It opened a national distribution center in Broomfield this year, and is also known for its involvement with Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where it not only provides meals to families, but also helps the community sustain food production through classes about farming and food safety.

"The things that I remember that I love about Conscious Alliance is the connection that we made to the Native American tribe in South Dakota, the Lakota Indians," says SCI guitarist Bill Nershi. "Their elder came to Red Rocks and gave us a ceremonial blanket right before we went on thank us for helping them with food and things they needed."

The "Art That Feeds" nonprofit still uses its posters-for-food business model: Concert-goers must donate either twenty non-perishable food items or make a monetary donation to Conscious Alliance in order to receive an original concert poster. One of the few stipulations to receive a poster: Ramen noodles don't count as part of your twenty items. The most in-demand items are high-protein, low-sodium foods.

You can support the nonprofit by purchasing past posters, which are available on the Conscious Alliance website. To date, it has collaborated with over 100 independent artists and just as many musical acts. The inaugural Conscious Alliance poster was designed by famed artist Michael Everett, whose first concert poster for the Grateful Dead is displayed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Concert posters are not the only way that Conscious Alliance collects food for its services — it has merchandise and donation collections — but it is the most notable and unique. Founder Justin Levy said in a 2010 interview that posters were a great way to involve "an age range that doesn't normally donate to food banks, which is 18 to 25. Jam bands will always reach that demographic. When a Conscious Alliance poster is hanging in their house, it’s a great reminder to them that not only did they get a great piece of rock art, but they also did positive work by bringing food to the event. It’s also a great conversation-starter if someone doesn’t know about Conscious Alliance and they see a poster they like hanging at a friend’s house."

The nonprofit adapted to the pandemic with virtual food drives and drive-thrus for the communities it serves. "Last year, while the world was shut down, we had a unique opportunity to reach more people to help support those in need," says Conscious Alliance's public relations adviser, Alex Tursi. "While the amount of families facing food insecurity has not changed, Conscious Alliance is faced with the challenge of gaining financial support among much of the public returning to a more normal routine. Since last year, trucking costs have increased 200% and have presented new logistical challenges along with the increased expense."

Conscious Alliance has given 1.4 million meals to families in 2021, and its final campaign of the year, On the Road to End Hunger, aims to raise that number to two million by the end of winter. To help meet that goal, the nonprofit hopes to raise $200,000 by December 31.

Conscious Alliance will again partner with the String Cheese Incident to collect donations during the band's performances at the Mission Ballroom on November 24, 26 and 27. The run of shows will feature special guests Chris Pandolfi and Andy Hall of the Infamous Stringdusters with an acoustic set on the first night, and saxophonist Dominic Lalli of Big Gigantic on the second night. The nonprofit expects to collect meals totaling in the thousands by the end of the run, and String Cheese has been donating $1 from each ticket sale to the organization.

"[Conscious Alliance is] undoubtedly one of the most important threads in the social tapestry of the SCI Community," the band says.

Boulder-based artist Phil Lewis, a Conscious Alliance alum, has created the String Cheese Incident poster for the Thanksgiving 2021 concerts: a blue and gold design featuring two doves. The poster can be previewed and ordered on the Conscious Alliance website.

The Mission Ballroom shows will also prove to be a nice break for the group. Nershi says that he and his Colorado-based bandmates are excited to be home for Thanksgiving, and they're grateful to the fans who are making the trek to Denver. He hopes the audience will be able to reunite with friends and family at the shows.

String Cheese Incident's most recent single, "Hi Ho No Show," dropped Friday, November 19. Without lyrics, the six-and-a-half-minute track blends Irish reels with electronic, bluegrass and folk styles, and will likely be included in one of the upcoming shows.

"We have lots of music in the chutes," Nershi teases. "Once we get one coming out, that gets the pumps primed. We have a lot more music we've been developing."

There has yet to be an announcement of a new album, and Nershi's lips are still sealed on the subject. During 2019 and 2020, String Cheese Incident released 31 live albums dubbed On the Road, each a recording of an entire performance dating back to 2001. The band's last studio album, Believe, was released in 2017.

Leading up to the Thanksgiving shows, the band took to social media to build its closing setlist with the help of its fans, asking them to vote for their favorite tracks. Nershi is looking forward to the "nuggets we haven't played in a long time," he says, and going "back to the roots of String Cheese."

The show on November 26 will honor the life of Jesse Aratow, a music manager at Madison House and manager of String Cheese Incident, who unexpectedly died on October 29 at age 49. Aratow worked with Conscious Alliance over the past nineteen years to organize food drives, including the very first one in 2002. After his passing, Conscious Alliance commemorated its " inspiring and selfless community leader" with a T-shirt emblazoned with "Keep the Dream Alive," one of Aratow's favorite phrases. All proceeds from the sale of the shirt have been used to support Conscious Alliance's mission. The band and Conscious Alliance have asked attendees at the second show to wear the shirt, though orders were closed November 12.

Nershi remembers Aratow as "one of those guys nobody has anything bad to say about." But the members of String Cheese Incident will honor Aratow's life far beyond this three-night run. "He was loved by a lot of people," Nershi adds, "and we're going to walk on stage and think about him when we play music for a long time."

As this "bittersweet year" winds down for String Cheese Incident, the Mission Ballroom shows and partnership with Conscious Alliance serve as a reminder of what the band is most thankful for: the love.

"We're going to take that love we're feeling from the String Cheese family and the fans, we're going to get behind that and see how far that can take us," Nershi says as he heads off to the final day of rehearsal.

String Cheese Incident plays Thanksgiving 2021 shows at the Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop Street, Denver, on November 24, 26 and 27. Tickets are available starting at $59.95. The shows will also be livestreamed on the String Cheese Incident website, with various levels of access available.
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