The String Cheese Incident can drop a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Those Memories of You” that dribbles into the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Lonesome Fiddle Blues,” and then slips into a spacey jam that segues into Peter Rowan’s “Panama Red.” That’s not a hypothetical—it’s from an actual set the group unleashed a couple of months ago.
Michael Kang (acoustic/electric mandolin, electric guitar, violin), Michael Travis (drums), Bill Nershi (guitar, lap steel), Kyle Hollingsworth (keys), Jason Hann (percussion) and Keith Moseley (bass) have learned how to employ their improvisational skills in more ways than one. Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh was supposed to join String Cheese for a set of Dead tunes at the renowned Red Rocks Amphitheatre last July, but Lesh caught Covid. Within a 24-hour-period, the band secured phenom Billy Strings. Though they had never performed with the badass guitarist, they went ahead with the same Dead set that concluded with “Estimated Prophet,” “Eyes of the World,” “The Other One” and “Shakedown Street,” each song bleeding into the next.
“We’ve been so lucky to share the stage with dozens, if not hundreds, of our friends, mentors and idols,” Keith Moseley tells me before heading into his Colorado studio; String Cheese plans to release a new studio record sometime in 2023. “That spirit of collaboration is super exciting for us, and has been part of what we’ve always looked to—that common language of music with friends helps us dig deeper into the experience by sharing the stage with these other players.”
Every SCI fan knows that no shows are alike. Ever. In the vein of the Dead, they can perform five, six or seven nights straight without repeating songs.
“Every show has a lot of possibilities in terms of the dynamics and energy,” Moseley says. “When those improv moments show up, it’s [important] to be open, attuned to the vibe of the crowd, the energy in the room and the [energy] of the band members.”
Other than the Grateful Dead and Phish, SCI is really the only other example of a jam-oriented band who has been at it consistently for multiple decades with pretty much the same lineup.
“We’ve been fortunate to be able to keep it together,” Moseley says. “It’s taken a lot of hard work and a shared focus. I think our diversity hinders us, but, in some ways, it helps us and helps keep the music interesting and fresh. A lot of it is about trying not to control what happens, and being accepting with an open mind, open heart and being part of the creation. Certainly, the energy from the crowd is a part of that. There’s more potential to create some magic, and that’s what we’re going for.”
Everybody in the band is a songwriter, and everyone contributes. The operation runs like a well-oiled democracy: everyone gets a chance to bring in and play their own songs. Like any relationship, there’s some give and take, and a lot of compromises, but these guys truly nurture each other’s strengths and avoid focusing on weaknesses.
The group’s endurance can also be attributed to the outdoor Colorado mountain lifestyle most members lead. when they’re not making music, they’re skiing, hiking and mountain biking. Hell, they started the band to perform in exchange for ski passes. Now they’re at a point where they don’t have to live on the road, performing 200 shows or more per year.
“No one has suffered from addiction or terrible health issues, and a lot of that is because of lifestyle focus,” Moseley explains. “We’re able to have time off to spend with our families. That also keeps us hungry to come back and play more and more. All those things have enabled us to keep going.”
It’s been 20 years since String Cheese last performed in Santa Cruz County—they played at UCSC, Palookaville and the Catalyst multiple times. Also, their multi-instrumental mandolinist Michael Yang lives in the area, and drummer Michael Travis is a UCSC alum.
“Santa Cruz has always been close to the heart of what we do,” Moseley says. “It’s going to be fun to get back.”
SCI headlines Mountain Sol Saturday and Sunday (4:30pm). Saturday features Santa Cruz alt-bluegrass trio the Devil Makes Three (2:45pm), Americana rocker Jackie Greene (1:15pm) and prog soul quintet Object Heavy (noon). Sunday includes Melvin Seals and John Kadlecik leading the Grateful Dead-flavored Terrapin Family Band (3pm), reggae roots outfit KATCHAFIRE (1:30pm) and late great guitarist Neal Casal’s brainchild Circles Around the Sun (noon). Local favorite Matt Hartle and Friends will be jamming throughout both days.
The Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Festival is Saturday, Sept. 17 and Sunday, Sept. 18, 11am-9pm at Roaring Camp, 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton. $115/single day ($60/kids 10-17); $225/ weekend ($115/kids); kids 2-9 are free with a ticketed adult. For RV camping, shuttle and parking, visit santacruzmountainsol.com.