The men of moe. have things lined up quite nicely on their spring tour in the Golden State. The band kicked off a four-night run at San Diego’s North Park Observatory the previous night before rolling into Hollywood for a Friday night at the Fonda. Then they proceed to San Francisco’s fabled Fillmore on Saturday night before capping the run with a Sunday blowout at the appropriately named Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz. That’s a quartet of marquee venues that would be tough for any traveling rock ‘n’ roll band to top as far as great places to take in a show.
A band like moe. may not be selling tickets like groups that fill the nearby Hollywood Bowl or LA Forum, but moe. plays to a more selective audience than the mainstream crowds that typically fill such larger venues. This is part of the allure, because the show takes on a more intimate community vibe. Lining up four of California’s finest venues in a row also makes for an enticing run to the more dedicated “moe.rons” who will follow the band for consecutive shows on tour and wind up seeing them 100 times or more.
Yes, it seems there’s always someone celebrating their 100th+ show when guitarist Al Schnier reads off the dedications that fans have dropped in the band’s memo box before each show’s encore. What leads a music fan to see a band so many times? The formula generally requires a vast repertoire and improvisational prowess, both of which moe. wield.
Thus, no two shows are ever the same, and there’s an ongoing quest to chase that epic jam that takes the listener to the metaphysical mountaintop. There’s also the sense of connectivity to the band, the community, and one’s own history, both for the old school fans that have been seeing them for ten, 20 years or more.
moe.’s progressively funky space rock power is on early display during “Awesome Gary”, a tune where bassist Rob Derhak lays down a popping bass line while guitarists Schnier and Chuck Garvey shred hot licks over polyrhythmic percussion from drummer Vinnie Amico and percussionist Jim Loughlin. The quintet takes the jam deep here, with Loughlin adding some strong work on the vibes as the guitarists continue to explore the rolling groove.
“Jazz Wank” lives up to its name, providing an airy breather as the guitarists explore laid back melodies while the rhythm section takes things down a notch. Then the band revs it up into a brief peak before falling back into the ambient groove. The tune serves as a launchpad into a huge trio of jams to close the set, starting with perennial fan-favorite “Spine of a Dog”, where the audience sings along jubilantly to lyrics about a pinball machine. The lyrics don’t necessarily add up, but the extended melodic jam is always a winner.
The outro jam finds the band teasing the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, only to actually deliver the song in full, much to the delight of the Hollywood faithful. The Stones were just through Southern California in the spring of 2015, but this classic cut has been in moe.’s repertoire for years and they give it a fresh spin with their own jammy sensibilities. There’s a drum break in the middle before the jam section, which the band explores in a smokey psychedelic style with some talk-box guitar in place of the original saxophone. The audience is deep in the groove as the show reaches that magical place where the music starts to play the band. moe.’s adventurous take on the song is a prime example of how great jambands can put a fresh spin on a classic rock song by putting their own sonic stamp on it.
Of course, the thing to do next is follow with one of their own classics, which moe. does by throwing down a raucous “Plane Crash”. The soaring jam vehicle about the joys and perils of getting too high launches the Fonda on a journey into the sonic stratosphere for a grand conclusion to the set. When the band brings the intense jam back down out of the improv sky for the final chorus, the audience responds with adoration for the wild ride.
The last half hour of the first set makes a high bar for the second set, but the slinky mid-tempo groove of “Water” kicks the dance party right back into gear. Schnier and Garvey are soon off to the races again, ripping off melty hot licks as the band synergy flows freely. “Hi & Lo” keeps the good times rolling as the band sets a decided tone for an exploratory set. “Big World” finds the band dipping into a bluesier, minor key sound with rewarding results as they continue to jam out with some wicked wah-wah guitar.
moe. is pushing the boundaries, as usual, with each of these first three tunes topping the ten-minute mark. Some mainstream music fans don’t have the patience for such improv, but for the moe.rons, the psychedelic jamming is what it’s all about.
The only thing better than a string of ten-minute jams is one epic jam that tops the 30-minute mark, a rare feat even in the jamband world. Such a jam is what moe.delivers in impressive fashion with a “Recreational Chemistry” for the ages, a monster version fitting of a Hollywood cinematic epic. The opening bass notes from Derhak always bring elation, for this ode to bong hits in the bedroom is one of moe’s most beloved jams.
Not even the die-hards expect a rendition like this. The quintet’s musical chemistry flows in masterful manner as the whole again becomes greater than the sum of the parts. No one is soloing in an overt way, yet each musician is pushing the groove along in a collective manner as all the parts mesh in an artful sonic tapestry. There seems to be some kind of Jedi telepathy in action as the jam starts to build in intensity, reaching a peak around the 14-minute mark that finds the band touching again on the main theme. Rather than wrap it up, now, this song functions as another rocket booster with the guitarists only now stepping up for a traditional lead guitar attack.
This soon leads to a familiar melody as the band smoothly segues into a brief yet smoking instrumental jam on The Doors’ “LA Woman”, before diving back into further exploration of the surging “Chemistry” jam. The band brings it way down around the 22-minute mark, but it ain’t over. It’s merely an interlude before the band revs back up for the high intensity finish.
Derhak and Amico get a furious groove going and Schnier and Garvey cut loose, while the audience gets down in transcendent glory. It’s only rock ‘n’ roll with a psychedelic improv component, but they sure like it a lot.
Schnier acknowledges the recent passing of music legend Merle Haggard during the encore, noting how he was not fortunate enough to have a dad that would take him to see the Grateful Dead, but that his dad would try to educate him about Haggard and other outlaw country musicians (and they would argue about Al going to see the Dead.) But then Schnier noted he was still subject to country music education even from the Dead, who made Haggard’s “Mama Tried” a staple of their repertoire.
The audience sings along with Schnier on the classic tune that straddles both the country and jamrock worlds thanks to Dead’s affinity for the song. Moe throws down a sizzling “Akimbo” to top it off, and another fabulous Hollywood night of world class rock ‘n’ roll is complete.
Schnier’s reference to growing up on the Grateful Dead brings to mind a recent quote from the Dead’s Bob Weir regarding the future of Dead & Company. The latest Dead venture features Weir with fellow core members Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, with John Mayer in the lead guitar slot and Oteil Burbridge filling in on bass for Phil Lesh (who retired from touring after last year’s 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” shows.) Mayer’s surprising ability to inject new life into the band’s music with lead guitar chops approximating Jerry Garcia in his 1974 prime apparently led Weir to have a cosmic vision of a future in which grey-haired versions of Mayer, Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti were leading the band with younger players in place of Kreutzmann, Hart and Weir.
The Dead’s incalculable influence on the jamband scene that has arisen over the past two decades with bands like moe. and their many peers has already reached living legend status. But Weir’s mystical vision, as related to Billboard.com, speaks to an even deeper influence that could theoretically find this scene continuing on into eternity. The influence of the psychedelic music that the Dead pioneered reaches across time and space, as seen for over 50 years now. Bands like moe. help carry that cosmic torch in the 21st century, ensuring a bright future for the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture.