The String Cheese Incident rolls into Albuquerque tonight for a Fat Tuesday celebration, riding a tide of popularity that has Rolling Stone magazine projecting the band as a probable successor to The Grateful Dead and Phish as reigning kings of the jam band world.
For those people who don't "get" jam bands, other than a vague notion that it involves freaky hippies dancing strangely to long songs not heard on the radio, I'll try to explain the phenomenon.
Jam bands play improvisational rock 'n' roll that draws on the jazz tradition of a band creating music as it performs to a live audience. The Grateful Dead set the standard for the genre for 30 years until heroin took the life of bandleader Jerry Garcia in 1995, leaving a subculture of Deadheads looking for new musical inspiration.
Phish, a college band from Vermont, soon gathered the largest following in the market, but early this year, band members announced a three-year hiatus, which may be extended forever, leaving the jam band title up for grabs once again.
The String Cheese Incident didn't set out to become a jam band when it began playing seven years ago as The Blue String Cheese Band in small Colorado ski towns. One night, the musicians discovered that they really enjoyed making up some of the music as they performed, and it was a hit with the crowd, too.
"The magic of improvisational music is when you get to the brink where everybody in the room, including the band, knows that nobody knows what is about to happen, then everybody's spiritual influence can affect the music," drummer and aspiring guitarist Michael Travis said. "Everything drops away and the band and the audience are merged."
Such talk might give the impression of a cult-like quality to the String Cheese scene.
"I try to make it a ceremony every night where it has some impact in my life and others' lives," Travis said.
The band nurtures a tribal family environment, gathering grassroots support to promote and organize its shows. With more than 5,000 volunteer promotion assistants around the country, an Internet chat and tape trading community and enough traveling followers to warrant its own travel agency, this band seems to provide something that many music worshippers are seeking.
What really sets The String Cheese Incident apart from other jam bands is its ability to play so many different styles of music well. It started as a bluegrass band, which is where guitarist Bill Nershi and bassist Keith Mosely have their musical roots.
Thanks partly to the addition of talented keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth in 1996, the band has incorporated jazz, Latin and rock influences in recent years, creating an ever-changing, but always danceable, musical gumbo. Mandolin and violin wizard Michael Kang rounds out the band and is a strong creative and experimental force as well as a lightning fast picker.
The band has a new studio album coming out in May, Outside/Inside, which was produced by Los Lobos saxman Steve Berlin. Travis calls the album a landmark project for the band, saying that the band's playing had more vibrancy than in previous studio projects thanks to the influence of its first outside producer. But like most jam bands, the energy of a live show is what all the hoopla is about.
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Local concert producer/print shop owner Norm Ruth is a longtime member of the String Cheese family. Ruth and artist Michael Everett approached the band five years ago in Durango, Colo., with some of Everett's poster art and ideas about merchandise, marketing and grand concert events. They have collaborated ever since, and shows put on by Norm's production company, Terrapin Family Groove, have become legendary for their lavish sets and visual accompaniment.
Tonight's Mardi Gras theme event will be no exception, with a French Quarter stage design, a Dixieland jazz band playing in the lobby as doors open at 6:30 p.m., three costume parades between sets, ice sculptures, feats of daring-do by The Clan Tynker performance troop and other top-secret surprises. It is an all-ages show and tickets will cost $28 at the Kiva Auditorium door in the Albuquerque Convention Center, 401 Second St. N.W. The Cheese takes the stage at 7:30 p.m.
A 21-and-up after-show party will be held at the Wool Warehouse, First Street and Roma St Ave. N.W., from midnight until about 3 a.m. Sacred Geometry, a trance/groove band out of Sedona, Ariz., will perform, and admission to the after party is only three bucks. Freaky dancing, hula hooping and costumes, pajamas and face paint are all encouraged but not required at these events.