It’s Saturday night in downtown Los Angeles and if you haven’t been there in a few years, you might wonder if this really is LA. The downtown area use to be pretty sketchy and was hardly thought of as a prime nightlife area. Bands like moe. tended to play the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip on the west side. But the City of Angels has come a long way with the development surrounding the Staples Center and the LA Live area across the street from the arena.
It’s a hub of sparkly nightlife now, with a slew of shiny bars and restaurants surrounding Club Nokia. The beers may be a bit overpriced ($8 for a pint of Hoegaarden at Wolfgang Puck’s), but just the fact that patrons have a wide selection of establishments for pre-show libations demonstrates that downtown LA is finally achieving the major metropolis vibe that had long been missing.
The “moe-rons” (as moe.‘s dedicated fans are sometimes affectionately known) are all over the complex, ready to rage with one of the longest enduring jambands in the business, going strong twenty years on now. Back in the mid-to-late ‘90s, moe. were one of a wave of jambands coming up behind the Grateful Dead and Phish to help create a broad jamrock scene that fans could scarcely have imagined in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the Dead were not the best at what they did, but the only ones that did what they did (to paraphrase legendary promoter Bill Graham). But then came Phish, Widespread Panic, moe., the String Cheese Incident, Galactic, the Greyboy All-Stars, STS9, the Disco Biscuits and many more. Each has a relatively unique sound of their own, but all push the music forward with an improvisational aesthetic not seen in mainstream rock.
None of these bands besides Phish have been able to achieve arena level popularity, yet they’ve all carved out prolific careers playing the clubs and theaters that provide a more intimate experience anyway. moe. has played some larger venues here and there over the years, but fans surely appreciate still being able to see them in the smaller venues they first saw them in back in the day. The band’s psychedelic guitar attack from Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey takes on a more visceral edge when you’re close enough to be able to see what they’re doing. Likewise being able to walk up close to get the full sonic punch from Rob Derhak’s bass during a stellar jam.
Fans are getting a bonus tonight with an opening set from one-man band Keller Williams, taking a night off from his own headlining tour to team up with moe. in LA. Williams came up as sort of a member of the String Cheese family, but has gone on to become a leading voice of the jamrock community due to his affinity for being a classic rock jukebox, while also writing his own anthems that tune into the zeitgeist of the scene like few others can or do (such as “Gatecrashers Suck” and “Doobie in My Pocket”).
His original “Breathe” is an early highlight of the set here. Keller loops the groove and guitar part before using an effects box to add on the main melody with what sounds like a theremin through a whammy pedal. Then he picks up a guitar again to play and sing the sublimely melodic fan favorite. This then segues directly into a quirky take on the Grateful Dead’s “St. Stephen”, an ever popular selection. Likewise for the anthemic “Freaker by the Speaker”, which also seems to feature some of Jerry Garcia’s psychedelic tone on the extended jam.
A special treat occurs at the end of the set when moe.‘s Al Schnier comes out with an acoustic guitar to collaborate with Keller on Phish’s “Birds of a Feather”, a tip of the cap to the Vermont foursome that paved the way for the entire modern jamrock scene. The duo appropriately jam out on the song for over ten minutes, with the crowd loving every moment. Schnier delivers some particularly tasty psychedelic licks with an underwatery tone that fits just right.
A standard set break finds a jam-packed smoking and toking section on the outdoor patio. It is California after all. Debate also ensues about the beer prices inside Club Nokia, with 24 ouncers of standard domestic swill going for $12, although one could argue that’s two beers worth. If you were lucky, another patron just might hand you an extra Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy that was somehow deemed expendable.
The headliners hit the stage after about a half hour break. The first couple numbers don’t quite catch fire, with everyone still settling in. But the opening notes of “Captain America” light a fuse that gets the show going, with bassist Rob Derhak stepping up on lead vocals for one of the band’s catchiest and most beloved tunes. “Lost Along the Way” highlights the band’s songwriting with a Beatles-esque tune that recalls some of John Lennon’s later work, before the tune opens up into a beautiful flowing jam that is all moe. The momentum continues to build with “St. Augustine”, another of the band’s most dependable classics, with Derhak once again singing over sharp melodic rhythms and stellar percussion from drummer Vinnie Amico and percussionist Jim Loughlin. Garvey adds some sweet slide guitar on the jam section, highlighting what seems to be an increasingly lost art in modern rock.
“St. Augustine” segues seamlessly into “Downward Facing Dog” from the band’s new album What Happened to the LA LAs, with some riffs that seem to recall the intro riff from Dokken’s mid-‘80s pop metal classic “It’s Not Love”. But the song finds Schnier singing with a more spiritual vibe, as the band continues to mix their diverse influences into something new. The song also features another crowd pleasing jam with some more great slide guitar work. The “Augustine>Dog” combo clocks in at around 22 minutes of groovy rock bliss. “Down Boy” closes the set in a similar fashion to “Lost Along the Way”, starting off with a laid back groove before cranking up with a fiery jam to end the set with a bang.
The second set is only six songs, but this means the band is jamming out and that’s what everyone is here for. The opening trio of “Puebla>Billy Goat>Queen of Everything” finds the band continuing to rock out in fine form. “Four” slows things down a bit with an ambient sort of jam that at first seems to be sort of a mid-set breather. But then the jam starts to build, first at a slow simmer but then catching fire with intertwining guitars, driving bass, polyrhythmic percussion and even some marimbas. What started as a break song has become one of the biggest jams of the night, with the song ultimately clocking in around 25 minutes.
The band then uses that as springboard for a masterful segue into the ever triumphant “Rebubula”. The room catches fire with the twin guitar lines that transmogrify an Allman Brothers Band and Thin Lizzy influence into one of the most epic and infectiously melodic songs in jamrock history. It’s here that this reporter is absolutely compelled to get closer to experience the full sonic effect of Derhak’s punchy bass line with those sweet guitar licks weaving in and out. It’s another huge jam that stretches out to over 15 minutes, with wave after wave of guitar ecstasy over a volcano rhythm section. That 15 minutes flies by though with the band gelling in such spectacular fashion, and it’s hard to believe it was that long when the set comes to an end amidst mass applause.
The fun’s not over yet though as the band comes back out for the encore and throws down a charged version of Pink Floyd’s “Time”, ever the cross-generational crowd pleaser. You’d think that would be it, but no, it’s Saturday night and moe. throws on another tune with “Farmer Ben”, featuring what looks like a roadie or maybe just a local friend rapping over a funky jam. This includes what Phish fans might call “type 17” jamming, with teases of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Pink Floyd’s “Money” and “Wish You Were Here” weaved in with stop on a dime skill. Yet another musical adventure with moe. has come to an end with a grand conclusion.