Starting a new tradition in festivals, the Big Summer Classic kicks off this year with a wide range of musical artists representing a broad spectrum of styles, headlined by String Cheese Incident. Formed in Colorado in 1993, String Cheese has become one of the most popular jambands in the country by following the time-honored tradition of endless touring and recording.
Bassist Keith Moseley, one of the founding members of the band, said he's glad String Cheese is finally headlining its own festival after years of playing other peoples' festivals.
"The Big Summer Classic is kind of our brain child," Moseley said in a recent phone interview. "We've been saying for a few years now that we'd like to do our own traveling festival tour, complete with a hand-picked lineup and different kinds of visual art and entertainment and stuff like that. This year, we're finally seeing it come together, from the biodiesel powered trucking to the sumo wrestling tournament to the various art installations that'll be going up in the venues, to the great lineup. I think it's going to be a really exciting package."
Most of the acts playing are either associated with the band's management or booking agencies, so touring together came naturally, he said. "We know the bands all very well and we tried to put together a bill that we'd enjoy, because I'm sure there'll be lots of collaboration along the way."
String Cheese has played a lot with Spearhead and Keller Williams, and to a lesser extent the other bands. "It's going to be like summer camp on the road for us," Moseley said.
With so many groups performing, there is an element of positive competition among the bands, he said. "All of the acts are so good, so when the person who plays before you sets the bar so high, you want to go out there and play your best show. Everyone feels like they're going to have to play their best."
String Cheese is currently riding the crest of their new album, One Step Close, which was released in June. It's a radical departure from their last album, Untying the Not, which had a darker, more industrial feel to it.
Moseley said the band started with 25 songs for the new album and winnowed them down to 13 for the final product. "That's a good problem to have," he said. "Everyone in the band is writing and contributing now, which is good. We had some time off last fall so we had the chance to do some outside collaborations, which I think helps us grow as songwriters. We've got collaborations with John Barlow and Robert Hunter and Jim Waterdale. It's our best collection of songs on this CD. It's my favorite of all our studio albums."
Some diehard fans have slammed the band for straying too far afield from its early, more bluegrass sound, but Moseley dismissed the criticism.
"I usually don't give it too much thought," he said. "We play what we want to play, we play what makes us happy and that's always been a wide range of styles. There's nary a show goes by that we don't play some bluegrass, because we're fans of bluegrass. But we're also fans of electronica and progressive rock. We'll continue to evolve but I don't think we've lost touch with our roots."
The band's early days are the stuff of legend, beginning their career with ad hoc gigs for whoever would let them play.
"Those days did have their charm to them," he said, "but I don't miss them because it's been a long, glorious road to get where we are now. But in the beginning, we started living in Crested Butte, Col., playing a lot of ski resorts. We'd play for lift tickets or whatever we could. We had a van and a trailer and then we bought a shuttle bus and drove that around the country for three years."
The group's attitude has shifted slightly over the years, he said. "In the beginning, as with any band, we had a conquer-the-world attitude and it was all about our determination and hard work. The goal all along was to be able to make a living with our music and travel around the world. We've been really fortunate to be where we are now. It's always been an adventure and it continues to be."
While many bands claim to be democratic, String Cheese actually is a working democracy. All song decisions, every arrangement and every detail is subjected to a vote among the six members.
"It's more difficult that way. It would be easier sometimes if there would be a leader that would say, it's going to be like this. We'll try five different endings to a song and then vote on it, you know? But it's a really positive way to try new tunes and new cover songs. It's somewhat unique that we have six individuals all contributing equally. I think it's what makes String Cheese unique."
A five-piece band for many years, the group added auxiliary percussion Jason Hann in 2004, making the voting process slightly more difficult.
"When there were five members, there would always be a 3-2 decision," Moseley said, laughing. "Now, we have the possibility of a 3-3 vote. When that happens, we just argue some more until someone changes his vote."
For more information on the show, visit bigsummerclassic.com.