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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2006/11/18
by David Steinberg

Cheesy Ending

After summer 2007, Billy Nershi is leaving The String Cheese Incident to pursue other musical projects. There will be only a limited number of Incidents between now and then. Current plans include Thanksgiving in Atlanta, a New Years Eve blowout in San Francisco, Winter Carnival in Colorado, and a return to Red Rocks. Presently, there are no plans for The String Cheese Incident beyond summer of 2007.
The band would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to our friends and fans for all your support. String Cheese Incident.
Were going to play the happiest break up song going right here. Its going to make you want to break up, even if youre happy together. – Billy Nershi introducing Black Clouds on 3/12/99.
No matter what people would like, you cannot control how people think of you. As much as SCI seemed to want to be associated with the Grateful Dead, their fate was much more linked with Phish. Sometimes its more important when you were born than who you are.
String Cheeses history maps very well onto Phishs. Band forms, gets big, starts playing funk, takes a hiatus, reforms, and then breaks up after an announcement from its guitarist. The only thing is that everything in String Cheese Land happened faster and the fan reaction was almost always the exact opposite.
Take the change in sound for example. Sure there are a few diehards who think that Phish peaked in 92 or 94 and never have come close to those heights, but it seemed that the majority of the fan base has been more than willing to roll with whatever Phish brings. [1] With String Cheese though, you cant say the words, String Cheese Incident in a crowded room without hearing a response of, I used to like them before they moved away from the bluegrass.
So perhaps its not surprising that the reaction to Billy leaving the band is so different. I havent heard anyone saying, Stupid Billy, and I can promise you that no one is going to be throwing cups at the band at Honkytonk Homeslice shows. This move makes sense. People might not like it. They might miss SCI. However, everyone can understand exactly why this is happening.
A large part of the reason why Trey got so much anger was the sense that he wasnt being honest with the fans in his interviews. The reasons given for the breakup were always changing and his actions didnt always seem consistent with them. If he had come out right after Vegas and said the things that he said a year later about drugs and darkness coming into the band members lives, the reaction would have been a lot different. People might have still been mad about them falling into trap of buying into the rock star myth [2], but I would sure hope the vast majority of Phish fans wouldnt expect anyone to risk their lives in order to give them music. Its understandable why Trey wouldnt want to talk about the drugs, but it added to the weirdness that was 2005.
With Billy, on the other hand, no one has the slightest bit of confusion. He was about the bluegrass. His acoustic playing – which was a large part of String Cheeses appeal to me got lost in the techno jams to the point where hes tried playing pedal steel and electric. This isnt a vague sense that somethings wrong compounded with a fear that someone might die if they keep going down the same path; the musical direction where Billy wants to go is obvious to anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to his career.
Im someone who gives the knee jerk, They were so much better in 98 and 99, response to any mention of String Cheese. I really like the Homeslice. However, it doesnt then follow that Im happy about this announcement. Sure, Ive parted ways with String Cheese to the point where I didnt even bother going down to the floor of my hotel to see them play at Vegoose [3] a sad development for someone who used to occasionally fly to see some shows but that doesnt mean that I wont miss them. There always were moments that made the show worthwhile.
There was the great build on the Angel from Montgomery jam in Black Clouds, followed by Kangs joyous mandolin run before the chorus reprised. There was the contrast between the techno and the bluegrass in Rivertrance that made both sides of the song much more interesting for the tension between them. And of course, there was always a chance to see Lands End, to hear the dark section followed by the bliss that is Glory Chords. That will most definitely be missed.
In addition, hanging out in the crowd at a String Cheese Incident show always felt that the last ten years had never happened. All of the trends pushing people to be meaner and more judgmental never managed to have an influence. While that did come with a price of some sketchiness around the edges of the scene, the spectacle made even a mediocre show worth seeing and turns a great show into a life-changing event. I love the costumes and the hoopers and the general joie de vivre that permeates the scene. I will always be appreciative to the band for keeping that spirit alive during a time when all of the cultural momentum was in favor of stamping it out forever.
Thank you String Cheese Incident. We might not have always agreed on the direction you were taking, but I enjoyed having you in my life. Thank you for the LaHood Bluegrass Festival [4] and 12/28/99 the insanity of Cypress week wouldnt have been nearly as cool if it didnt start out with the adventures in Vancouver and 3/10/00. Thank you for bringing some wonderful people into my life and for inspiring me to finally learn how to hoop (well kind of). Its been a great run.
Hey, if this anti-Phish rule has any more life to it, 2007 might end up being your best year ever. I look forward to seeing a last Incident or two to find out. Would one last Hornings Hideout run work for you?
[1] Well at least this is true pre-hiatus. The hatred of Secret Smile and Friday seemed a lot more fervent than that for previous ballads. Leaving for a while might have raised the bar. Fortunately for any potential future reunion, Coventry had the exact opposite effect.
[2] More on that in a future column…
[3] In my defense, I had been up well past 4 the two previous nights seeing music in that venue and we had desert exploration plans for the next day.
[4] See
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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