By Greg Maniha
moe. may not be the biggest band in the jamband movement, but few could argue that they have the best jobs in the world. As nice as it would be for any band to pack Madison Square Garden, have the limos waiting at the backstage entrance, and anything you wanted in the meantime, on the creative level it can be a destroyer with an unrelenting lack of remorse. It seems that with every level of fame achieved, another level of creative freedom vanishes. The issues of public image, restrictions surrounding the kind of record one is permitted to record, and being overwhelmed by contracts understood by few yet written by those with little to no interest in the welfare of the artist is enough to make one spiral into oblivion, as many in the music business already have. It makes one wonder if it’s even possible to have a long and enduring music career answering to nobody on both the creative and professional level. If you’re a jamband megastar, it may even compel you dream of a life that mirrors the collective we have come to know as moe.
moe. began their 2012 tour as twenty year jambamd ambassadors despite the efforts of some that guided their career during the first five. This ongoing musical experiment started with an honest dedication to the note and sonic beauty of audio exploration. From the beginning, there was never a question surrounding whether the moe. collective would ever do anything else with their lives. They played anywhere and as often as possible. This dedication didn’t go unnoticed by the audiences they would come into contact with and after two to three years, they went from opening slots in clubs of 50 to a record contract with Sony Music. By standard logic, this would be defined as “making it big,” but oftentimes, it’s that very same record contract that kills the music collective before it has the chance to flower and flourish. By the band’s own admission, just gaining access to the recording studios of Sony made them feel like superstars, but the end result of connecting with Sony was two truly fine records that never got promoted to radio or retail. Perhaps had moe. been discovered by Atlantic during the artist driven climate of the 70s, they would have been granted the artist development that nurtured their rock & roll heroes like Led Zeppelin or Yes, but there is an everlasting gap between Atlantic in the 70s and Sony in the 90s. moe. just happened to be discovered by the machine during an era not well suited for them in the impatient profit driven 90s and as a result, the once exciting relationship between moe. and Sony ended almost as quickly as it had begun.
With Sony no longer interested in working with moe, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see a demoralized collective ready to call it quits, but for moe. this was not an option. Too many music enthusiasts continued to demand their live presence and moe. responded by answering only to them as well as themselves. This rare but enviable liberation in the music business has resulted in 17 recorded live and studio volumes, a popular annual festival of their own creation, global shows as far from their upstate New York home as Japan, and sold out shows across the nation with an average of 2000 fans per night. The evidence of this was on full display at the sold out Rams Head Live performance in Baltimore on March 10th of 2012.
moe. have unofficially been granted the title as the resident torch carriers of progressive and classic rock within the jamband genre. One can easily hear the influence of King Crimson, Yes, and Frank Zappa alongside the reliable staples of The Grateful Dead with a blanket of 70s hard rock thrown in for good measure. The beauty of moe. as a progressive outfit, however, is that unmistakable festive spirit so prevalent in the jamband movement yet absent from 70s prog rock. As serious as they were when they stepped on to the Rams Head stage, they also resembled the happiest souls in the world. From the opening first set notes of the “Brent Black/Rise” combination to the immediate extended rhythm jam with drummer Vinnie Amico and percussionist Jim Loughlin, this is clearly an outfit that would rather be nowhere else except on that stage in the moment.
After bassist Rob Derhak stepped into the rhythm adventure and effortlessly displayed a funk ability that could land him a gig with any pioneer of the genre, the complete outfit returned to the stage for a first set that fully displayed the strength of moe. as modern day jamband pioneers.
The direction of the first set took a combined turn of both up-tempo and relaxed mellow rock with the duo of “Rainshine” and “Deep This Time.” The Latter showcasing the vocal talents of Rob Derhak as well as displaying that it’s possible for a 70s AM radio style to receive the infusion of a heavy stoner rock slide guitar solo by Chuck Garvey.
The introduction of “Brittle End” channeled a psychedelic “More” era Pink Floyd style while the extensive rockabilly ballad style of “Shoot First” that followed showcased Chuck Garvey’s lead vocal talents. This was followed by a set closing take on The Rolling Stones “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” that set the stage for what would be the overall direction for the classic rock themed second set.
The second set, while perhaps not quite as embraced as the jams during the first set, featured the strongest guitar combinations of the evening. moe. has an amazing secret guitar weapon in Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey that stands out beautifully as they trade solos with one another. Chuck Garvey is a flawless rock & roll player with an uncanny ability to channel the style of the 70s lead and rhythm guitar driven sound as was evidenced with the second set opener of “Sticks and Stones.” Al, on the other hand, specializes in more of a note driven lead style that one might compare to the result of a mashup between Jerry Garcia and Robert Fripp. These two complimentary styles were a spot-on match during this second set at the Rams Head.
The 70s remained in full swing with a Joe Walsh/Eagles era tinged “Okayalright” complete with talkbox compliments of Chuck Garvey. Surprisingly, the audience didn’t appear to be embracing this direction despite the flawless ability to incorporate such a timeless era into the modern day version of the celebrated jamband genre.
After a brief detour to their early catalog with the childlike “Yodelittle,” the 70s returned again with the brief appearance of “One Way Traffic” followed by “The Road.” This 70s direction took a turn towards the advanced rhythmic fusion style of Allan Holdsworth and GONG with the hypnotic “McBain” before delivering the evening encore of the very non 70s ode to life as a pinball machine with “Spine Of A Dog.”
If only one word could be used to describe moe, “empowered” would be a strong contender. They serve as living proof that it’s possible to be completely honest with your musical intentions, deliver the intentions to your fans with integrity, take the path that serves as the antithesis of rock stardom, and end up living the ultimate dream as a result. Somewhere right now, there must be a vice president at Sony Music regretting the day they parted ways with moe. If there isn’t, there should be. moe. on the other hand, couldn’t be in a better place, and the jamband community is flourishing because of it.