Whenever you’re asked to list off the biggest musical names to have emerged from Buffalo, the odds are, you spit out a few of the usual suspects – Rick James, the Goo Goo Dolls, Ani DiFranco, maybe Grover Washington Jr., Brian McKnight or Billy Sheehan. Oddly enough, most folks I encounter don’t include moe. in that list.
And yet, moe. – the jam/rock/groove ensemble that formed in Buffalo at the dawn of the ’90s and got its start kicking up a late-night ruckus at bars like Broadway Joe’s on Main Street – is quite clearly one of the great Buffalo success stories of the past quarter century.
Granted, the group – despite a brief relationship with Sony records for the successful “No Doy” album – never climbed the commercial heights scaled by the Goos, and never cashed the counterculture check with quite the vehemence exhibited by DiFranco.
But make no mistake – moe. is, in many ways, more indie rock than indie rock itself. The group has followed a singular path of its own design for the entirety of its career. And despite the brief union with a major label, it has done so as an independent entity, one responsible for building its audience through touring, touring and more touring.
In the process of all that touring, moe. became one of the most successful of the early ’90s wave of new-era jam bands, a patch of incredibly rich musical soil from which grew the likes of Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler and, to a lesser extent, the Dave Matthews Band.
This weekend, moe. will celebrate Labor Day with the 15th edition of its annual festival, moe.down, held at Snow Ridge in Turin, N.Y. The festival is one of the longest-running and most successful of its type. Quite clearly enjoying its hard-earned independence, and sitting pretty just after the release of its finest studio album, the sprawling “No Guts, No Glory,” moe. has managed to have its cake and eat it too.
So why the relative lack of love for moe. in the mainstream, even here in Buffalo, where the band was born and where it left behind such a major legacy when it took off for the great wide open? I believe it comes down to a bias against jam bands, one that is born out of misunderstanding, typecasting and reliance on stereotypes at the expense of actual empirical evidence.
Rochester author Peter Conners (“Growing Up Dead,” “JAMerica”) was asked in a recent interview, conducted by James Madison University’s journal The Breeze, why he thought that many bands tended to ultimately reject the narrow jam-band classification. In his response, Conners noted a general bias against the idiom within the music industry and the media.
“I think it’s just an independent spirit, not wanting to get pigeonholed,” Conners said. “From the business side, because so many music critics and magazines ignore (jam bands), people say when they see ‘jam band’ in promotional material, ‘That’s it, you’re out.’ There’s a business reason to avoid it, too. Anybody will tell you … in that scene that it is a double-edged sword.”
Being known as a jam band, he continued, “brings a lot of people in, but it also turns a lot of people away.”
Conners isn’t wrong. But to take his reasoning further, a lot of intellectually lazy labeling is happening in the broader public, too, and not just within the industry. The general popular consensus among “haters” is that jam bands can’t write songs, that they noodle incessantly, and that only people on drugs could possibly like them. There’s humor in this, but there isn’t much in the way of factual accuracy. Certainly in the case of moe., a band that has always prided itself in its songwriting strengths, in the diversity of the musical influences it assimilates, and in the “on point” nature of its in-concert improvisations, the label stubbornly refuses to fit.
Listening to “No Guys, No Glory,” one hears elements of reggae, classic rock, psychedelic music, country, folk, pop and soul music, as well as a host of improvised sections that tend to be short and very focused. The songwriting is strong and hook-oriented. The production is crisp and clean. And yet, moe. remains to be perceived as a band that simply noodles its way across the globe. Interestingly, several bands that have been granted the immunity provided by the indie rock label – Wilco and the Drive By Truckers, for example – are at least as “jammy” as is moe.
Does the band seem bothered by this? Not particularly. I doubt Chuck Garvey, Al Schnier, Rob Derhak, Vinnie Amico and Jim Loughlin will be giving the matter much thought when they’re presiding over the 15th year of their very own festival this weekend.
Just look at the lineup: Gogol Bordello, O.A.R., Lotus, Soulive, Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang, the Jerry Douglas Band, Everyone Orchestra, Twiddle, Floodwood, Aqueous, the Werks, Conehead Buddha, American Babies, Wild Adriatic and six sets across the three-day fest from moe. If you were lucky enough to be a member of moe., would you be worried about what label the industry found it necessary to pin on you? I didn’t think so.
Details can be found through www.moedown.com.