Moe or Less

Apparently, less really is Moe.

Restraint seems an odd proposition for any group painted into the jam-band corner. It is, after all, a genre in which a road-weary hash of musical excess and instrumental prowess becomes a patchouli pied piper’s sweet sound, luring the nomadic, barefoot masses like so many tie-dyed moths to the flame.

Yet Moe’s style has become more contained even as the group has redefined the boundaries of improv rock. It could be that the pendulum is merely swinging back — the band, founded by bassist Rob Derhak and guitarist and vocalist Chuck Garvey at the University of Buffalo in 1991, adopted the jam-band model in the first place because it didn’t have enough original songs to play live.

“For the first couple of years, it wasn’t as evident,” Garvey says with a laugh. But jamming “was important for our own sanity,” he adds. “Playing 250 days a year, you have to keep your interest level up.”

Moe’s quirky, frenzied early material wavered greatly between styles, sharing as much in spirit with Fishbone as it did with Phish. But over time, the music has evolved into a distinctive collage of sound, and the ingredients — funk-based rhythms, alt-Americana rock, psychedelia — no longer seem so disparate.

The key to the coagulation has been the songwriting, which the band has focused and refined to make a nearly seamless sound. The band’s last two albums, Dither (2001) and Wormwood (2002), exemplify the economy that seems to be drawing Moe closer to the center, closer to being a straight-up rock band — even as the group continues to be heralded as a standard-bearer of the jam-band scene.

Dither‘s concise, upbeat songs play like a pop record. Wormwood stems from live recordings from two weeks on tour. Moe then built studio tracks around portions of the taped material. The resulting live-studio hybrid sounds textured (audible crowd noise) but clean, sleek but ethereal (listen for the ghosts of recorded-over instruments).

“It’s not like Dither is black and Wormwood is white,” Derhak says. “It’s more like different shades of gray.”

Starting with those albums, the band’s sound has paradoxically widened, becoming more atmospheric, while the songwriting has tightened. The band seems to be pulling in two directions at once.

Jamming still figures prominently in Moe’s stage show, but the band members have become adept at keeping their explorations in-bounds to prevent the overall flow from capsizing. The subtlety of the improvisation is surprising and surprisingly effective.

“When we first started, we were playing weird songs for the sake of weird songs,” Garvey says. “Just anything that interested us.”

Moe even released a 45-minute jam as a single. But as the band has pulled back the reins, its newfound discipline has created new venues.

“They sounded to me like a funk band [at first],” says Ben Kauffman of Yonder Mountain String Band. “Now, the sound has kind of just … opened up.”

It’s an assessment shared by many of the bands who began on the Upstate New York college touring circuit alongside Moe, including Dexter Grove, Ominous Seapos, Moon Boot Lover and the Tim Herron Corporation.

“When I first saw them, the show was crazy,” says Charlie Orlando of Dexter Grove. “Every style you could think of, [with] no real explanation for what they were. [Now] I really wouldn’t be surprised if they write a tune that gets a ton of airplay. It seems like they are moving toward that.”

Which isn’t to say that Moe is abandoning its jam roots in pursuit of pop-radio edification. The band has long paid the bills with a relentless touring schedule that canvasses the country multiple times during any given year. And it’s the legion of jam-band fanatics who show up for all those performances that still keeps the Birkenstocks on the band’s feet.

The band, in turn, is beginning the process of rewarding its fans with a new album. Though no date has been set to record the successor to Wormwood, the band has already begun writing, and the new material has started to find its way onto the band’s set lists.

“We just haven’t decided how we want to do it yet,” Garvey says.

Progress is slower now that the band members no longer live under the same roof. Offstage, Moe has fragmented, its members having embarked down the long road toward family-minded domesticity. The band has significantly pared down its mammoth touring schedule from the typical 200-plus shows a year. And by necessity, the increasingly streamlined songwriting process has become even more concentrated.

“We get together for these two-, three-day bursts,” Garvey says. “We work really hard during that little pocket of time, rather than setting aside a month to write a bunch of songs. It’s cool to do it that way, because you concentrate on one thing at a time. [Otherwise] everything starts to sound the same.”

Categories: Music