String Cheese Incident marks 30th band-iversary with “Lend Me a Hand”

Like many timeless Colorado stories, the origins of the genre-defying band String Cheese Incident trace back to a local ski hill.

In the early 1990s, Bill Nershi and Michael Kang often played the soundtrack to winter in Crested Butte, entertaining skiers in the infamously long Paradise Lift line and during après at local bars. They were fun gigs and also worthwhile, since the duo received ski passes as payment.

As the band grew in popularity locally, so too did the number of people who played in it. Keith Moseley joined on bass guitar to complement Nershi, also on guitar, and Kang, who played guitar, mandolin, and violin. One night in December 1993, Michael Travis subbed for the group’s drummer during a concert at the Crested Butte’s Center for the Arts and inadvertently coalesced the String Cheese Incident.

“That was the first time we played as a four-piece,” Nershi said by phone recently.

As the band approaches its 30th anniversary later this year, it’s celebrating with a new album – its first in six years – entitled “Lend me A Hand,” which debuted on Sept. 8. The sound and vision, crafted in partnership with producer Brad Cook, mark something of a return to roots for the String Cheese Incident, which has dabbled in numerous musical genres over the last three decades.

Though the group started as an acoustic quartet, its music evolved as Kang delved into electric mandolin and piano player Kyle Hollingsworth joined the group. Percussion player Jason Hann, who joined the band in 2005, also helped broaden the sonic palette, as did members’ side projects like electronic outfits EOTO and Elastic Mystic.

Though String Cheese Incident often gets labeled a jam band, Hollingsworth disputes the label as a catch-all that undermines the bluegrass, jazz, funk, reggae, electronic and world influences apparent in its music.

“While we added directions, we never subtracted,” Travis said. “We continue to write in all the genres we’ve embraced over the years and endeavor to add or even invent more.”

Even so, “Lend Me a Hand” diverts from the wide array of styles String Cheese Incident weaves into its live performances and instead puts the songwriting center stage. The album’s 11 songs tell stories of good times and grief leaning into country western, folk and blues sounds. The tight focus makes it one of Cheese’s most mature releases, Hollingsworth said.

“This album, for me, is one of those albums you can put on start to finish. It’s more of a book with multiple chapters,” he said. “It’s a complete image of where we are and who we are right now.”

That’s not to say the band is simplifying its live show, which has been key to both its wide appeal and longevity. Cheese spent the majority of 1996 and 1997 on the road in a Crested Butte Transit bus the members purchased and built out with bunk beds. The band played around 450 shows in two years, Nershi said.

“Traveling together, living together, playing music and shows together all the time — there’s really no escape when you’re on the bus,” he said. “We spent a lot of time working things out and talking about our problems and how we get along with each other.”

The trust the men forged in those early years also translated to the stage where they became known for improvising and infusing an infectious energy into every set. Cheese quickly earned a reputation as a must-see for fans of jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic, eventually becoming a staple on festival lineups and a mainstay at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

This summer, Cheese surpassed 50 shows at Red Rocks during a three-night run that featured collaborations with John Fogerty, the Kitchen Dwellers and Thievery Corporation.

In addition to performing, Cheese grew to be a curator of good times over the years, throwing original festivals like Horning’s Hideout Fest, Electric Forest and Suwannee Hulaween that were inspired by similar events the band had played around the country and world. (The latter two still happen annually.)

Despite the miles and years behind them, Nershi said the band has no intention of slowing down. As for what’s left on the bucket list?

“I’ve always wanted to play with Peter Frampton,” Nershi said. “I’m going to keep pushing for that.”

Hollingsworth’s ambitions are even loftier.

“Skydiving with the band,” Hollingsworth joked. “That’s something we haven’t done.”

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