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When the String Cheese Incident formed in Crested Butte in 1994, its members were just ski bums trying to make enough money to pay for the next day’s lift ticket. In the 25 years since, the group’s genre-bending bluegrass sound has helped it build a die-hard fan base and climb as high as the main stage at the 2011 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. More important, String Cheese—along with outfits like Leftover Salmon and Big Head Todd and the Monsters—established the Centennial State as an epicenter for jam bands. Before the six-man ensemble celebrates its silver anniversary with three nights at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (July 19 to 21), we asked String Cheese’s Colorado contemporaries to reflect on the band’s lasting legacy.
“In 1995, String Cheese was playing in Telluride at this basement bar. All the hippies are stomping down into this little room that holds maybe 80 people—and there were 80 people there. Shoes and sandals and bushy armpits. It stunk, and people tried to mask it with tons of sage and incense. I liked that. I’d been to a ton of Grateful Dead shows, you know? I felt at home. And the way String Cheese was jumping from genre to genre, it freaked me out. It was pure musicianship—salsa to funk to bluegrass to reggae to jazz, and repeat. I just knew this was going to be something people dug.” —Keller Williams, a solo musician who collaborated with String Cheese on the 1999 album Breathe (he’ll play the entire record live with the band at Red Rocks on July 20):
“We’d been a band for about five years when String Cheese started, and they told me directly that they basically began as a Leftover Salmon cover band. We’re all part of the bluegrass culture, but String Cheese did a totally different thing with it. They went more into other styles than we did—more into Afrobeats and incorporating techno into their sound.” —Drew Emmitt, co-founder of Leftover Salmon (which has a show at Red Rocks on July 4):
“When I was about to graduate from the University of Colorado in 2014, String Cheese played on the Hill in Boulder. The show was basically in the middle of an intersection. I cannot make this up. People were literally climbing light poles and hanging from them and dancing. They were sneaking onto rooftops. You could see them on top of businesses and apartments. I’m like, No other band could fathom this scene in Boulder. They were one of our biggest inspirations.” —Danny Evans, guitarist for Amoramora, a Colorado jam band that performs an annual show titled “Smoked Gouda: A Tribute to the String Cheese Incident”
“They’re always putting a lot of energy into the live show to make it an experience—always working on collaborations with other musicians, always mixing up the set. I love that myself and other artists can show up, and String Cheese will be like, ‘Come out and drum.’ That always happens. You’re just talking to them in the green room and they say, ‘Hey, come play.’ And we jam.”— Dave Watts, drummer for Colorado funk band the Motet