Colorado connections at the Belly Up
November 21, 2005
Back in the early ’90s, when Leftover Salmon was a rising Colorado band, they made frequent appearances in Telluride. The Front Range band had been born right on the stage of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. And the festival’s late-night slot proved an ideal stage for Leftover Salmon’s energetic, theatrical mix of rock, zydeco and bluegrass.And as much as Leftover Salmon was a regular visitor to Telluride, Billy Nershi was a dependable attendee at the band’s concerts. “I never missed a Salmon show,” said Nershi. Laughing, he adds, “I went out a lot.” Nershi at the time was a Telluridian, but hardly a notable musician anywhere outside the town. Having arrived in Telluride in 1981, the New Jersey native accompanied local singers on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, and eventually worked his way up to solo après-ski gigs. But Leftover Salmon wasn’t above calling out a local picker to join them onstage.”Vince [Herman, Salmon’s singer and guitarist] would usually point to me and tell me to play a couple of tunes,” recalls Nershi by phone, from his home in Nederland. “But that was when I wasn’t in any band of consequence, just doing local projects with friends.”Circumstances have changed. Since the mid-’90s, Nershi has been part of String Cheese Incident, a band of more than a little consequence. Founded in Crested Butte, String Cheese has become one of the leaders of the jam-band scene, selling out venues like Red Rocks, headlining festivals like last summer’s highly successful Big Summer Classic, and taking the do-it-yourself band ethos to a new level with its own record label, SCI Fidelity, and a hands-on approach to touring, relating to its fans, and philanthropic causes.So Nershi will not be just another face in the crowd when the Drew Emmitt Band, led by one of Leftover Salmon’s co-founders, performs at the Belly Up Saturday, Nov. 26. Nershi, along with his String Cheese mate, bassist Keith Moseley, are billed as special guests, making this performance one of the more highly anticipated in the Belly Up’s ski-season schedule to date. The all-acoustic quartet, rounded out by Nashville banjoist Chris Pandolfi, is on a nine-date tour of the Rockies and the Northwest (although only the Boulder and Aspen dates include Moseley.)
Nershi had first come to Telluride as a 15-year-old, to visit his older brother, and left being “pretty blown away” by the mountains. After finishing high school in northern New Jersey and a brief flirtation with college, Nershi returned to Colorado as a 19-year-old to check out Telluride Bluegrass. But one weekend bled into another, and another. Soon enough, he was changing his mailing address.”There were festivals all summer long, music festivals,” he said. “I never found a good time to leave. I sent word home to send my stuff out.”Among those possessions was a guitar, even if Nershi couldn’t do much with it. But he was a music fan, having gone through a progressive rock stage (Yes, King Crimson, Gentle Giant) and a Southern rock phase (Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd), and even absorbing a little bluegrass. Influenced by Telluride Bluegrass, and the distinct fingerprint the festival left on the town, Nershi sharpened his focus to acoustic music.”I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I played guitar,” says Nershi of the time. “The bands I heard, year after year, shaped my musical direction a little. Every Thursday [at Telluride Bluegrass] it was New Grass Revival, which later morphed into Strength In Numbers. These bands are at the core of the music I love.”But it was the setting in the mountains, the music, the people in Colorado – the entire experience had an impact on me. It was an incredible thing, especially being from the East Coast, where life is very different.”Having progressed from novice to accompanist to après-ski singer-strummer, Nershi was ready for the next step of putting a band together to play original material. After a few projects – including a duet with Liza, who would become lead singer and guitarist of Boulder funk-band Zuba – he met some players from Crested Butte who seemed of a like musical mind. Nershi gamely bought a school bus and relocated. On New Year’s Eve 1993-’94, String Cheese Incident – a quartet of drummer Michael Travis, fiddler/mandolinist Michael Kang, Moseley, and Nershi on acoustic guitar – played its first gig.
After just a handful of gigs in 1994 – most of those in Telluride, thanks to Nershi’s connections – the band started to get serious in 1995, with 20-plus dates around Colorado and their first road trip, to California. (The band’s first Aspen show, 10 years ago last week at the Double Diamond, drew a surprisingly large crowd for a little-known band playing in mid-November.) String Cheese became a full-time job in 1996, when the band moved to Boulder and racked up 167 show, from their debut on the main stage at Telluride Bluegrass to the Wetlands, the heart of New York City’s jam-band scene.”We knew we were on to something, because we were having a good time,” said Nershi. “And the crowds had a much more excited response than we expected. That fed us to practice. We thought, people are really liking us; we’d better get good.”String Cheese got good enough that, by 1999, they were playing the Fillmore in San Francisco, Irving Plaza in New York, and Red Rocks – big venues that were unfriendly to acoustic instruments. So adjustments were necessary.In 1996, String Cheese could still claim to be something of a string band, though one with a heavy rhythmic element that borrowed from Afro-Cuban and funk, a flair for improvisation, and a tendency to plug in their instruments. In 1997, the band added keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth, and the sound became more expansive and jazzier, less acoustic – and louder. They covered Michael Jackson, Wayne Shorter, Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead, in addition to Bill Monroe and Peter Rowan. The band’s recent studio albums have been heavily produced, with plenty of electronics in the mix.”I don’t think anyone can anticipate the direction a band is going to go in. A lot of it has to do with the instruments people got excited about wanting to play,” explained Nershi. “Travis almost immediately put together a drum kit, as opposed to the congas and bongos he started with. So it had a David Grisman Quintet vibe. Then Mike started on electric violin, and had someone build him an electric mandolin.”These changes in instruments changed the kind of dynamic we could achieve onstage. Those instruments changed the way people wanted to sound onstage. And adding Kyle gave us a huge dynamic range we could achieve.”Amidst the changes, Nershi has been the most steadfast in preserving String Cheese’s roots. His main instrument remains the acoustic guitar. The varying tendencies are most evident in the side projects the individual members pursue. Travis plays in Zilla, a free-form acid-jazz group. This year, Hollingsworth released a CD, “Never Odd or Even,” which explores contemporary electronic groove music. Kang has played with DJ Lorin in the duo Elastic Mystic.
Nershi, meanwhile, has spent his time outside of String Cheese exercising his acoustic muscles. He reunited with Liza for the 2001 album “It’s About Time,” a collection of concise songs. He has toured recently with his wife, Jilian, in the acoustic group Honkytonk Homeslice. (That band is scheduled to open for New Jersey acoustic band Railroad Earth at the Wheeler Opera House Jan. 31.) And there is the current tour as part of the Drew Emmitt Band, which he considers a pleasure.”I would say there’s attractions mentally and musically to these projects,” said Nershi. “It’s a much lower pressure situation. This helps me remember I’m playing music because that’s what I love doing, and it’s fun. I still understand that playing with String Cheese, but some of the shows, the expectations are high, the arenas are large, and there’s more pressure. So it’s difficult to be relaxed. You’re in a position where you have to deliver.”And the style of music I enjoy is just one part of the String Cheese sound. Any night that we play, the style that’s at the core of what I enjoy represents only part of the show. To do shows where I say, ‘Oh! I’m doing what I really enjoy!’ – that’s a kick.”The Drew Emmitt tour is that kind of show. Emmitt, who has led both acoustic and electric combos since Leftover Salmon broke up last year, joined String Cheese as a special guest for three shows last spring. Nershi took the opportunity to learn a bunch of Emmitt’s tunes, resurrecting the friendship that started in Telluride over a decade ago.”The whole range of songs Drew writes, that’s at the core of what music is for me,” said Nershi, who also toured as part of Emmitt’s band earlier this year. “As a songwriter, I’m impressed with the quality of his songs. You play them, and some of them felt like they could have been written 30 years ago. They’re standard songs, but unique at the same time.”Playing in someone else’s band has the added benefit of letting someone else handle the business side. From the outset, String Cheese opted not to farm out its management, so the band members still have a hand in ticketing, touring, travel and other details. It makes Nershi feel like a part-time businessman.
“We decided to structure our musical world this way, and now we have to back it up,” he said. “I guess I’m still glad we’ve done it this way; it puts us in a position where it’s the band calling the shots. But it can be a lot of headaches.”The current tour, conversely, is all pleasure. The band will pull from Emmitt’s two albums, including this year’s all-acoustic “Across the Bridge,” traditional bluegrass, and songs by Nershi and Moseley. With the freedom to get a little out there if need be.”And you never know when someone’s going to pull out an ABBA cover,” said Nershi.”Really?” I asked.”Well, what do you think?”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org