“Every time we do it, I still have to pinch myself,” confesses Keith Moseley.
The String Cheese Incident bassist remains properly awed about sharing a stage with Peter Rowan, calling the bluegrass hero “one of our idols, and a big inspiration to us.” (Rowan played with Bill Monroe in the ’60s and came to fame in his own right after a stint in the band Old & In the Way, which also featured David Grisman and another guy you may have heard of — Jerry Garcia.)
But this Boulder-based quintet, which doles out a self-termed “sacrilegious mix of bluegrass, calypso, salsa, Afro-pop, funk, rock and jazz,” has little trouble riding its own wave in the opaque sea of jam bands out there today. A certain carefully registered humility notwithstanding, Moseley sounds confident that SCI will continue to rise above the rest.
“It’s probably our diversity that makes us stand out, the fact that we can not only play the type of music other so-called jam bands do, but that we can also play straight-ahead bluegrass and sound kind of like a bluegrass band, or play hip-hop and do a pretty good job at that, or play some Afro-pop rhythms and sound like an Afro-pop band,” he notes. “We mix it up so it will be interesting and challenging to the audience, and it’s never the same show twice.”
And though their crowd might seem to be concentrated within a certain nouveau hippie demographic, from where Moseley stands, the music has many faces. “The age thing is more dependent on the venue itself, and the region, than anything else,” he offers. “In Asheville, we do have a lot of younger folks, but in other places, like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it’s people in their 30s and 40s. … We draw from all age groups, and that appeals to me, to be able to entertain everyone from teens to retirees. I hope we continue to draw an across-the-board crowd.”
While Moseley agrees that part of their popularity with youth comes from a general millennial swing toward rootsier rhythms, he’s inclined to adopt a broader perspective.
“I got turned on to bluegrass when I was in my early ’20s myself,” Moseley explains. “This kind of [revival] happens all the time: It’s a cyclical thing. As people get disinterested with what’s on MTV and the radio, they start to look for something more meaningful, back to where all these new sounds originated from.”
Moseley and his bandmates (pianist Kyle Hollingsworth, violinist/mandolinist Michael Kang, percussionist Michael Travis and guitarist Bill Nershi) undergo their own personal search before every show, determining what from their diverse catalogue of influences to draw on that particular night.
“We work hard trying to decide what to play,” says the bassist understatedly. An average year sees the band playing in the neighborhood of 200 gigs. “All five of us take turns with lead vocals at different times, and we have a large repertoire, around 100 tunes, so we try to mix it up,” he says.
And if one needed any further proof that these aren’t your typical laissez-faire troubadours, Moseley offers a rare insider’s peek at the tight reins behind their “freestyle” jams: “We design the set list every night. … We might start with bluegrass, then go into a wild jam and bring it back again, deciding where the music’s going to go.”
Where it’s going these days is everywhere: A light show, elaborate backdrops and a personal high-tech sound system (“Our [sound system] is always quite a bit better than anything in the venues [themselves],” he points out coolly) are all key components of SCI’s burgeoning three-hour sets.
“We’ve [recently] made the jump out of bars to theaters — which is good, because it allows us room to bring art to decorate the stage, which we can’t do in a club setting,” Moseley explains. “For the most part, we’re trying to do only venues that allow us to do our full thing.”
Which means a night of good, clean fun, these days.
“We’re really trying to foster the family vibe,” Moseley relates. “Bill has kids now, and I have one on the way. We want to make [the show] a place where the whole family can come and feel comfortable … although some of it might be too much for them,” he allows with a laugh.
Peter Rowan has had little trouble keeping up with the times. After a stint with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the ’60s, the Boston native went on to form his own rock-fusion band, Sea Train, before becoming part of Old & In the Way, whose live, self-titled album (Rounder Records, 1973) — recorded live at The Boarding House in San Francisco — became the best-selling bluegrass album of all time.
Far from resting on his laurels, however, Rowan continued to forge broader paths in the historic territory of bluegrass. Later efforts included recording three records with his brothers, as The Rowan Boys, and making a Celtic flavored album, The Walls of Time (Sugar Hill Records, 1981). Rowan released two, new-flavored efforts in 1996: Yonder (Sugar Hill Records) with Jerry Douglas, and Bluegrass Boy (Sugar Hill), whose controversial song “Ruby Ridge” — based on the 1992 confrontation between Federal agents and white-supremacist Randy Weaver — engendered a firestorm of controversy (and praise).
After three decades in the music business, Rowan shows no sign of letting up. Still a sought-after and forceful performer, the musician is fast approaching legend status.