It’s Winter Carnival time for String Cheese Incident | AspenTimes.com
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It’s Winter Carnival time for String Cheese Incident

Stewart Oksenhorn

When keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth relocated from his native Maryland to Colorado, he was in search of a musical challenge.

He found it.

Over a six-night stretch that began yesterday, Hollingsworth will be jamming at various times with rock-pianist extraordinaire Bruce Hornsby, long-running gospel vocal group Blind Boys of Alabama, veteran rockers Little Feat, bluegrass guitarist Del McCoury, and groove-band Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.

Of course, Hollingsworth will also be joined each night by the rest of the musicians – bassist Keith Moseley, mandolinist/violinist Michael Kang, acoustic guitarist Bill Nershi and drummer Michael Travis – who make up the String Cheese Incident. String Cheese is in the midst of its annual Winter Carnival tour, a weeklong jaunt through Colorado that includes three gigs at The Fillmore in Denver, which began last night and continues through Saturday, Feb. 17. The tour moves to Vail’s Dobson Arena for gigs on Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 19-20. Each night features a different opening act – Hornsby, Blind Boys of Alabama and Little Feat in Denver; McCoury and Tiny Universe in Vail – who will almost certainly find their way to the stage during String Cheese’s set.

Even without guest players, the String Cheese Incident offers one of the more challenging musical experiences to be had in the pop world. Born in Crested Butte in 1993, the band started as a mostly acoustic four-piece, content to play updated bluegrass in mountain towns around the West. But as String Cheese’s popularity grew, and the band widened its territory, the music expanded as well. The repertoire encompassed tunes by bluegrass granddaddy Bill Monroe and jazz-fusion greats Weather Report, Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” and the Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way.” Drummer Travis added a discernible Afro-Cuban element to the sound. Jams were allowed to go to world-class lengths.

The addition of keyboardist/accordionist Hollingsworth in 1997 opened a new sonic frontier for String Cheese. “When I moved out here, I was interested in joining a band that was challenging in a lot of different ways. Our band is influenced by a lot of different music. And each member brings their tastes into the band. So we’re kind of driven that way, said Hollingsworth, a former jazz piano student at Maryland’s Towson State who favors jazz players like Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock.

There are plenty of bands touring the clubs of North America who combine diverse elements, and prove it by playing a Bob Marley cover, improvising as a jazz band would, and jamming la Phish or Widespread Panic. String Cheese Incident has methodically absorbed its diversity of styles in the best way possible – by going straight to the source. As long as their burgeoning popularity has allowed, String Cheese has sought out musicians to jam with. The list of String Cheese collaborators is as long as it is wide: hip-hop outfit Spearhead and barrio rockers Los Lobos, reggae master Bunny Wailer and banjoist Tony Furtado.

The array of guest players has forced String Cheese to open up their ears and their style, making them flexible enough to play straight-up bluegrass or stretch out into a bebop standard. Sometimes they get the chance to rehearse with their musical guest du jour, sometimes it’s by the seat of their pants.

“You generally pick a song that’s pretty easy and that we both know,” said Hollingsworth, “maybe a Motown song, and go from there. It can be totally tight or a little loose.”

One of those looser moments provided Hollingsworth with one of his most memorable musical experiences. African percussionist Baba Olatunji joined String Cheese for a jam that Hollingsworth describes as “incredible. And very scary.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen on stage. But sometimes that’s when the best stuff comes out. He’s almost blind, had to be walked out onstage. He just started singing, and we’re like, OK, what key is he in?”

Audiences at the upcoming Vail shows can probably expect some of String Cheese’s tighter collaborations. Del McCoury, the guest on Monday night’s show, is leader of the Del McCoury Band, probably the tightest, most polished and most respected traditional bluegrass band currently playing. And Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe has jammed often with String Cheese, including at the Aspen Harmony Festival a few summers back.

Additionally, saxophonist Denson, as well as Tiny Universe trumpeter Andy Cleaves, recently joined String Cheese in a Texas studio, where String Cheese was recording its forthcoming album. Given ample rehearsal time, String Cheese was able to work out new songs with Denson and Cleaves, which Hollingsworth said will find their way into Tuesday night’s set list.

The CD, “Outside Inside,” produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, is due for release on May 15. Hollingsworth, for one, is a fan of the new recording.

“It’s my new favorite album by String Cheese Incident,” he said. “It breathes so much. Compared with other String Cheese albums, we were not as meticulous. We didn’t sweat over it so much. We took our time, and it came out of us. We had a much more relaxed feel. It feels more like String Cheese than a studio album.”

Like its previous albums – including two live sets, “Carnival ’99” and 1997’s “A String Cheese Incident,” and the studio recordings “Born on the Wrong Planet” and “`Round the Wheel” – “Outside/Inside” is being released on the band’s own record label. In most things, String Cheese Incident has taken career independence to new heights. In addition to its own label, SCI Fidelity Records, the band has its own management and publicity arms, its own merchandise division.

The idea is to bond as closely as possible with the audience. That has meant scheduling annual special road events, which have taken the band and its followers to places like Costa Rica, Mexico and Jamaica for multiday camping-and-concert experiences. It has meant making each concert, as much as possible, its own unique “incident,” in String Cheese parlance, with lights, hula-hooping, lavish stage sets and, of course, different set lists every night. This summer, the band is scheduling almost nothing but festival-style concert experiences, which will allow for camp outs and further community building. String Cheese has a volunteer corps, the Pirates, who put up posters and handle other details in exchange for concert tickets and other goodies.

“The connection to the fans is pretty key,” said Hollingsworth. “We’ve been working hard on that. We’ve been working nonstop. And building grass roots everywhere has been a big part of our growth. Allowing people to tape our shows, spreading the cheese, has worked well for us. We’ve taken our time, and let the growth happen.”

And the growth has happened, and in fairly quick order. String Cheese now plays multiple dates, always sold out, in venues like Denver’s 3,600-seat Fillmore and San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. The fact that folks like Bruce Hornsby, Little Feat and Los Lobos open for String Cheese is a testament to the band’s popularity. But the band is intent on not getting swallowed up in the hugeness of it all. It’s just another part of the challenge for Hollingsworth.

“It’s been smooth,” said Hollingsworth. “But it’s also been work. We had to make sure it was smooth. We had to make sure it was smooth for the fans. It’s a challenge because we want to continually bring in new music, for ourselves and our fans.”


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