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Published: 2015/02/13
by Aaron Redner

Hot Buttered Rum’s Aaron Redner: 10 Reasons Why The String Cheese Incident Is One of the Best Groups Touring Today

Tonight in Las Vegas, The String Cheese Incident will open their three show Sin City Incident run at Brooklyn Bowl. In anticipation, Hot Buttered Rum’s Aaron Redner has written this essay on why SCI is one of the best groups on tour these days. He recently contributed an article to Relix on the 10 Reasons Why Trey Anastasio is the Perfect Choice for ‘Fare Thee Well.’

The first time I heard the String Cheese Incident was in Portland, Oregon, in the late ’90s during a New Year’s run. I had heard mumblings about the band from some of my Grateful Dead touring buddies who were still going out to see music on occasion and not sitting in their rooms at home with old cassette tapes and wearing tie-dyes, and living in the past like I was.

From the moment I walked into the venue, I was impressed by the ambience and careful thought put into the fan experience. The familiar smells from my lot days made me feel strangely at home before I had heard a note of music. It was the night before New Year’s Eve, and people were already dressed like they were ready for the ball to drop. Again, I was so impressed by the intricacy of costumes and how the decor stemmed from band lyrics.

As a songwriter myself, nothing makes me happier than when something I conceived of resonates on a deep level with another human being. This band had obviously found a way to communicate with their fans and create a cycle of kindness and gratitude that I had not seen in a long time. Then the music started…

I think the quality of music I expected to hear was higher than the band was actually capable of producing at the time—the band was still in its very early, formative years. Don’t get me wrong: I totally enjoyed the music, but I was rarely lifted off the ground. In retrospect, perhaps my lack of chemical assistance contributed to that initial disappointment. It seemed to me that the fans really carried the band in the best of ways in those early days. Whatever technical limitations or creative immaturity the band displayed at the time, the fans were the ultimate forgivers. On top of that, the band was incredibly athletic and, much like a brilliant upper-teen, their energy was limitless and the whole evening proved a callisthenic event. Their energy rocked the house that night as much as any technique involved.

On one of the two nights I attended, they covered a bunch of Beatles tunes and completely crushed it. I think it was then that I really began feeling a kinship for the band. It’s another example of why bands should embrace the occasional tasty cover so that the more-casual fan who might not know the lyrics to the original tunes has a chance during the evening to howl along full throat. During set break, I really enjoyed chilling out in a beanbag chair surrounded by yoga mamas and mindful hippie nannies in some kind of yurt made of scarves. Keller Williams was playing on a side stage, and I thought he was pretty cool too :-) I went home that evening and lay in bed processing what I just experienced. The next morning I found myself looking at their tour schedule to see when I might catch another incident…. I think my next one was in Costa Rica, and the rest is history.

The following are ten reasons why the String Cheese Incident are one of the greatest touring bands of all time:

1. The fans

Of all my music-loving friends, the String Cheese fans are, by far, the most dedicated to their band. “Going to get my rail spot? Who’s on line duty? Who scored tickets for the acoustic benefit they’re throwing at the kids hospital? Fastidious plans are made; packing becomes a ritual of the utmost importance. The rail is where they will meet their friends from around the country who have made a similar trek from across the land and the economic spectrum. The rail is coveted landscape, and the key holders are usually female anywhere from 16 to 75 with bindis on their foreheads. Flowing, batik skirt or cape optional. These fans are professional partiers and as generous as they come. You always feel like everybody’s looking out for everybody. String Cheese shows are like play camps where adult fans drop themselves off for a night of bliss and pick themselves up again the next morning for a free-range organic omelet and a strong cup of coffee.

2. They are the perfect size

While the band themselves may always wish for larger things, they consistently seem to play great venues during the perfect time of year; and often in beautiful ornate theaters of 2 to 4,000 people which, to me, is the perfect-sized venue to achieve lift off. Throw in the occasional three-night run at Red Rocks and main stage sets at major festivals (where they get to play for tons of people), and you find a great balance for a band that is able to achieve mythological status while still being true to their initial ski-bum origins.

3. Keith Moseley

When you go backstage at an SCI show, the first person to get off the couch and shake your hand is Keith Moseley. He will also ask and remember your name for the next time he sees you, when he will be equally gracious. That vibe carries over to the stage in an obvious way and explains why fans routinely sport shirts that read, “Team Moseley.” On any given night, you will see more than a handful of these shirts throughout the venue.

When a beloved fan was found dead, Moseley penned the tune “Struggling Angel,” which the band plays beautifully these days to commemorate her life. In some ways, this embodies much of what String Cheese is about: Exalting their fans as they themselves are exalted in return.

Keith has a great smile that really kicks into gear when he gets ready to sing a well-placed cover and carry team mostly on his back. Keith combines being a sweet and a tough guy at the same time. I know personally he has played through some big shows with back pain, and one would never know because of his consistent demeanor. A true peaceful warrior on the bass.

4. The production

The best bands these days essentially have members who are not on the stage. These members add to your visual and sonic experience, and help to realize the original band members’ vision, combined with a perspective of a professional fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of modern gear and cutting-edge technology. One only needs to see a ribbon dancer descending from the ceiling like a crystal ball bathed in light and fog and spiraling to the rhythm of the music to understand what a multi-sensual experience an SCI show can be. Their production is not cheap either; which means the band is not cheap. They understand that they need to continually show their fans the respect they deserve by spending the money it takes to make the party “pop,” routinely employing hoop and/or rope dancers, walking giant puppets through the crowd, having sky divers descend on the crowd, or providing light-up toys to the audience so they can be part of the show, too. Most recently, the band has picked up the incredible talent of lighting designer Andrew Cass, previously with Bassnectar. The fans are chattering away about the incredible new eye candy—an awesome addition to the already top-notch production. This commitment carries over to backstage as well, where cast and crew enjoy organic food that is locally sourced, and perhaps get a massage or yoga class or two.

The SCI crew is second to none as well. Everyone from the guitar tech to the road manager seems to have a Master’s degree in his or her respective field, and they are a wonder to watch!

5. Bill Nershi

Uncle Billy is the man. As fans say, BNR. That is, Billy Nershi Rocks! There is no one you should invite to your campfire jam before Bill Nershi. He not only knows hundreds of songs you already love to sing but also has written numerous timeless classics that are already being covered by younger bands. His music is becoming part of the American Songbook, and there couldn’t be a more deserving guy. The first time I ever heard the song “Barstool” in a show and heard the crowd scream that, “A bar room full of people makes a lot of noise!” I knew I was witnessing something genuine. Billy is an impish gnome who enjoys picking his guitar much more than participating in any small talk at a party. That’s a win for everybody and a big reason why there’s always a feeling of a family hang out at String Cheese shows. To me, there’s no better moment than when the band comes out of a long, extended electronica/disco/bluegrass jam and into a simple strum of Billy’s acoustic guitar with everything else dropping out. Those are the moments I like the best. But Billy has, over the last several years, begun to incorporate the electric guitar as well. Fans were initially skeptical, but Billy has really stepped up on this new instrument, and that gives the band a whole new range of musical movement. Anything can happen with Billy, and you will often see him kicking his legs up high at the front of the stage like a crazed Russian dancer, which only takes the jam higher as the band responds to the fans responding to Billy. Circular energy at its best. It’s what drives String Cheese.

Billy is also a fearless downhill skier who will leave you in the dust if you are not an expert. I’m sure he’s been the recipient of many a free ski pass and enjoyed some little-known areas of ski resorts, compliments of local fans and resort employees who jump at the chance to show off their resort to Billy. I would hate this if I were Billy’s manager. When a concerts’ success relies so much on your health, should uncle Billy really be jumping off cliffs?

Of course he should!

Billy is incredibly encouraging to younger bands and will often sit in or play a show with somebody simply because he enjoys playing music with them. He definitely encouraged me and taught me a lot a lessons that I adhere to till this day. Billy wore a Hot Buttered Rum visor at a big show in Austin, Texas, when we were just starting to tour the whole country, and it stunned me when I entered the venue. We felt somehow validated by his wardrobe choice, and I’ll never forget that gesture.

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