February 12, 2003

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Recreational chemistry
Understanding moe.

By Blair Jackson

FIRST THERE'S THE matter of the name, lowercased and with a period at the end: moe. Originally, more than a decade ago, when they were cutting their teeth playing in dives for stoners and microbrew swillers in upstate New York, they were Five Guys Named Moe, after an old Louis Jordan tune. Not that there's anyone in the band named Moe, of course. But you know how it goes: everybody's really wasted one night, and they're tossing around idiotic band names, and all of a sudden Five Guys Named Moe seems like the funniest thing in the world. It even looks good at the bottom of the ad for the upcoming gig at the local bar. The lowercase m and the period are maybe a tad pretentious – though not as obnoxious as Prince's infamous symbol – but frankly the guys probably don't care one bit how you spell their name; that's for writers and editors to sweat over.

Then there's the whole "jam band" tag to deal with. Now, last time I checked, Phish didn't sound anything like Widespread Panic, and Blues Traveler didn't sound anything like the String Cheese Incident. And moe. don't sound like any of those bands, though in their fervent devotion to eclecticism, their occasional absurdist lyrical slant, and their willingness to go "out" at the drop of a hat (or tab), there is a passing resemblance – at least in approach – to Phish. And while the whole jam band scene descends, in part, from the Grateful Dead phenomenon, moe. don't sound like them either. You will see hippies at their shows but mostly younger ones. You will smell reefer in the air (BYO). You might think that guy over there, dancing kinda weirdly and intently staring at the drummer, is tripping, and you'll probably be right.

Proudly jammy

But moe. are no '60s throwbacks; they're more nouveau psychedelique. They have tons of energy, and they draw their inspiration from everywhere – from Zappa and Zeppelin and reggae and West African guitar bands and Neil Young and the Ramones. The group have two exceptional and imaginative lead guitarists, Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey, and a rhythm section that can play any style ... and does: bassist Rob Derhak, who, with Schnier, is also a principal singer and writer in the group, drummer Vinnie Amico, and percussionist Jim Loughlin. There are no overbearing keyboards in there to muck up the sound, though Schnier does occasionally dabble in some magnificently retro analog synth sounds. They draw from a huge catalog of original songs, with titles such as "Meat," "Spaz Medicine," "Sensory Deprivation Bank," "Rebubula," "Moth," and "Recreational Chemistry," and they tend to string their songs together in long medleys connected by adventurous and fabulously elastic jams. So to answer that question: Yes, moe. are, in fact, a jam band.

"Moe.'s hallmark is a balance of improvisational prowess and a commitment to song craft," says Dean Budnick, editor in chief of jambands.com, the authoritative news and information source for that world. "In the live setting, they'll take a melodic, engaging composition and vest it with new textures and nuances. This is why the group has taken home two Jammy Awards – in 2000 for "Live Album of the Year" for L and in 2002 for "Live Performance of the Year" for their late-night set at the Bonnaroo Music Festival. Not only do they rip, they don't hesitate to bust each other's chops onstage, offering a bit of bonus entertainment."

"So far we've been really lucky because our fans let us play whatever we want to play," Schnier says by cell phone as he and Amico cruise across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan into New Jersey the morning after a gig. "We just keep coming up with these songs, and we don't really think too much about where they came from or how they fit in with anything else, and we play 'em, and they either work or they don't, or we change 'em around, or we drop 'em, but hopefully we're always doing new things. And our audience loves that. They want to hear the new songs. They want to hear the obscure song we've only played twice before. Of course, a lot of our fans are crazy ...," he notes with a chuckle.

Relentless road warriors

Moe. have built their following the old-fashioned way: by touring relentlessly for more than a decade. They've logged countless hours driving in the sleet and snow between Albany and Buffalo, N.Y., and Springfield and Boston, Mass., and slept in the shittiest hotels imaginable (but just as likely on friends' floors). Yet they've persevered and even thrived, to the point where they now routinely sell out large theaters and clubs in the East and Midwest (their New Year's Eve gig in Chicago drew more than 5,000 people), and they're headlining two nights at the Fillmore Feb. 21 and 22. Not bad for a band you've never heard of, eh?

As with their cohorts in the jam band scene, live playing is what's happening for moe.; albums are almost beside the point – though, conveniently enough, moe. are arriving in San Francisco right after the release of their latest CD, Wormwood, on iMusic/Artist Direct. How do you make a studio album that captures the energy and invention of the group's performances? It's the eternal jam band dilemma. For Wormwood, moe. decided to cut the basic tracks of the songs live on the road and then polish them later in the studio with overdubs. "Well, of course it ended up being a lot harder and more complicated than we'd expected," Schnier says with a laugh.

Indeed, when they got to the studio, they realized there was unending computer work to do, from isolating the best tracks to editing guitar solos, so, Schnier explains, "I spent the first five or six days working about 16 hours a day in front of a computer, and we didn't do any recording at all. We could've stayed home or been in a hotel room doing the kind of stuff we were doing, so it was very frustrating. Then our engineer came down with walking pneumonia! We had a lot to overcome, but somehow, miraculously, we got through it. It was definitely the most intense recording experience I've been involved in."

Wormwood and warts

The album even includes connective material to link the songs together: some from shows, some created in the studio. The title cut (named after the psychoactive ingredient in absinthe) is one such instrumental digression. But beyond that are a strong batch of songs that show some of the many styles this group tackles and jams that go from pretty melodic flights to screaming metaloid crescendos. And the studio-live experiment definitely worked – it sounds great. "Growing up," Derhak says, "you hear these albums that become like a cornerstone of your memory: 'Wow, this is a great piece of art!' They hit you a particular way, and they stay with you forever. I don't know if Wormwood is that album; maybe it will be for some people. But I always think we can make a better album; in fact, I know we will."

To really hear what moe. are all about, check out their three-CD Warts and All, Volume Two, on their own Fatboy label – a complete live performance from February 2002 at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, a notorious hotbed of serious moe.-dom. Or better yet, come down to the Fillmore, burn a fatty, and dance the night away. "The Fillmore is perfect for moe.," Derhak says. "It's got the vibe. It's got the history. It's got the chandeliers and the wooden floor. When people get there, they expect a lot, so everyone really keeps us on our toes. And that's usually when we play best."

Moe. play Feb. 21 and 22, 9 p.m., Fillmore, 1805 Geary, S.F. $22.50. (415) 346-6000 or (415) 421-TIXS.