As bands grow in popularity, they often lose sight of what sparked them in the beginning.
Not the String Cheese Incident, a quintet based in Boulder, Colo., whose freewheeling mix of rock, bluegrass, jazz-funk and the kind of whimsy indicated by its name (whose origins the members don't discuss) has made it a favorite of many looking for the vibe of a Grateful Dead concert.
"We were carefree ski bums at the beginning of the band, and we're still striving to get back to being carefree ski bums," says singer and guitarist Bill Nershi, 39.
Nershi and fiddler Michael Kang started playing together in 1993 to entertain people waiting in lift lines as a way to earn money for their own lift tickets. Soon keyboards player Kyle Hollingsworth, bassist Keith Moseley and drummer Michael Travis joined the band, which became a fixture on the apres-ski party circuit.
Now the band has become too busy to get much time on the slopes.
You may never have heard of the String Cheese Incident, and record sales have been minimal, but it's been spending as many as 250 days on the road building an impressive following, much of which, Deadhead-like, travels from show to show.
The band sold out two shows at the 1,200-capacity House of Blues last February and is back in town for sold-out nights Friday and Saturday at the 2,200-seat Wiltern Theatre. It's doing comparable business around the country, and its annual Mid-Winter Music Festival in Colorado drew 10,000 people.
"String Cheese's stature has expanded exponentially over the last two years," says Barry Smolin, host of the Friday night jam band showcase "The Music Never Stopped" on KPFK-FM (90.7).
"With Phish on hiatus, I imagine they'll be the likely inheritor of that crowd. They incorporate a lot of Dead-style spirituality and spectacle, and they've already captured a larger portion of the older Deadhead crowd than Phish."
Expectations of a bigger audience can be gleaned from "Outside Inside," the band's fifth album, due May 15. Produced by Los Lobos saxophonist and keyboardist Steve Berlin, the collection shows sharpened focus and discipline.
"The feeling is this record will be more accessible for people who aren't just lovers of the jam-band thing," Nershi says. "That's what I wanted to do--'Look, we can write songs and sing!' But it wasn't a planned thing to try to make our break into the mainstream."
Still, more record sales would mean more time off the road and not just for skiing. Nershi is tired of being away from his wife and two daughters, 9 and 2.
"We're trying to get the records to catch up with the touring so we're not forced to tour so much to make money to keep the operation going," he says.
At the same time, he and his bandmates don't want to jeopardize the foundation of their success in exchange for pop hits. With that in mind, they've turned down offers to sign with major labels in favor of building their own Sci Fidelity Records. They've also established their own ticketing service and even a travel agency to help fans make arrangements for road trips.
They've also organized about 3,000 fans into a national network of volunteers (dubbed Pirates after one of the band's songs) to serve as an ad hoc promotion team. Among the duties, as described on the band's Web site: "Make sure that posters are put up around town, help inform us of what's going on in town while we're there and spread a general good vibe about an upcoming show."
The last point addresses what has been a pitfall for some jam bands, as the growth of their crowds has brought out darker sides of the communal caravans. Some cities banned the Grateful Dead when its audience swelled in the mid-'80s with an influx of newer, unruly fans who weren't schooled in the code of the road. Similar fallout developed around Phish as its following grew in the late '90s.
Nershi says his band has tried to learn from that history.
"There are more young people coming out, more people doing longer stretches of tours now than there have been," he says. "But I'm really proud of our crowds and the way they handle themselves. We're hoping the people who have been following us for a while will help us educate the newcomers about the scene. We don't want any weird drug scene going on and will try to keep that under control. The buzzword is responsibility."
* String Cheese Incident, Friday and Saturday at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Sold out. (213) 380-5005.