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Published: 2001/10/18
by Richard Gehr

moe. betta boogie

Originally published in spring 1995 in The Village Voice reprinted with
kind permission of the author

Beatific kids dressed up as daisies and bumblebees when Wetlands
celebrated its sixth year of hippie persistence one cold evening in
Feburary.
The Albany quartet and Wetlands regulars called moe. provided the
thoroughly sick birthday grooves. As the group reassembled onstage for its
third set sometime around 3, Mohican-coifed guitarist Al Schnier announced
the world premier of Timmy —a bona-fide, honest-to-God, old-fashioned,
down-home ROCK OPERA!

Titular character Timmy Tucker, the nitrous-damaged straight among a
family of circus geeks, was inspired by a drunk the band espied passed out
in a snow drift after a frigid upstate gig. In moe.'s Zappalike "ropera,"
Timmy drifts around Manhattan, dodging transvestites and bookies from 42nd
Street to Washington Square Park to McSorley's. He eventually winds up at
a well-known downtown psychedelic hot spot, where he finds himself on the
guest list of a fried Albany "hippie group" called moe., which is still
onstage at 4 in the morning playing a rock opera called Timmy . And I
believe you get the idea behind this thoroughly whoa, dewd but
nevertheless highly amusing conceit.

With two wonderfully agile and psychically attuned guitarists (Schnier and
Chuck Garvey), the most melodic bassist I've heard in years (Rob Derhak),
and a hard yet nimble drummer (Jim Loughlin, who just quit the band),
moe.'s a stripped-down gizmo with gears spinning wildly across the musical
landscape. Like the Allman Brothers, or Camper Van Beethoven with chops,
it's often difficult to tell where moe.'s maximalist arrangements end and
the jams begin. Funkier than prog-rock and weirder than jazz, in addition
to heads and tails their stretchy tunes contain limbs and organs that
twitch and throb to their own stop-time beats—in addition to the show
tunes, Beatles covers, dirty limericks and playful mind games that find
their way into the mix.

No love songs as such for moe., either—or at least no love songs that
aren't drenched in the cryptic fabric and stoner wisdom of daily life.
Mexico’s the obvious college-radio hit, St. Augustine the
metaphysical
MTV long shot. Me, I prefer the sassy electric polka of Yodelittle
and
the giddy strychnine funk of Recreational Chemistry. And these are
just
the titles I know from their decidedly unshabby self-released album,
"Headseed" (PO Box 366, Ellicott Station, Buffalo, NY). But since this
music lives and breathes (and gargles and puns) onstage, I'd recommend
their upcoming June 2 romp at Brownie's by way of introduction.

Moe—excuse me, moe. (formerly Five Guys Named Moe)—is the most
fascinating combo among several extremely interesting upstate New York
groups some have unsuccessfully attempted to pigeonhole as Phishy quirk
bands, SUNY love bombs, dysfunctional typography groups, stoner-preppie
lava lampreys, or, as I tend to regard them: third-generation psychedelic
jam units . More directly influenced by Phish, Primus, the Meat Puppets,
and Frank Zappa than by the Grateful Dead, whose peripatetic legacy they
sustain, these groups are like long-lost uranium deposits hunkered in the
nooks and crannies of the Empire State's college towns.

The upstate jam-band motherlode condenses a low-key, if not exactly
underground, national phenomenon you could blame on the artistic and
commercial success of Phish. The Vermont quartet's immense college
following, constant touring, and emphasis on music rather than image
construction offers a long-awaited and much-needed alternative to the
so-called alternative bands that dominate the attention of everything from
MTV to Option. In commercial terms, Phish's success is due largely to word
of mouth, an extensive mailing list, the realization that tape trading
actually enhances a band's visibility, and active online presence via the
"Phishnet." I know of no group, in fact, that demonstrates as much respect
for its audience as Phish—a mutually enhancing relationship that pays off
for all concerned.

Phish offers something else rare in pop: a long, complex, and completely
different show every single night. Musically competent without fetishizing
technique, Phish embraces a broad spectrum of rock, jazz, bluegrass,
20th-century compositional techniques, blissful extended jams, African
groove experiments, psychedelic game playing, and absolutely Dionysian
moments of free-form guitar ecstasy. Like nearly all these bands, Phish
released their first album themselves. Five records and an Elektra deal
later, Phish's albums still evade the juicy joys of the band's phenomenal
live shows—which might be remedied with the June release of Phish , a
double live album programmed with fan-base input.

College consumers more interested in pop music as ecstatic dance vehicle
rather than nihilistic gloop fest are eager for alternatives to the Dead,
whose scene has devolved into a leaning-tower-of-Garcia watch, with the
rest of the band working overtime to pick up the now TelePrompted
guitarist's substantial slack. While on the East Coast, at least, Phish
has outgrown the intimate venues that has fertilized a substantial
mythology: their Madison Square Garden debut in December sold out in a
little more than three hours—not too shabby for a band "nobody" listens
to.

I hear the exploratory enthusiasm of Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra in fervent
Phish jams that liberate dissonance and explore new emotional spaces as
though their lives depended on it. I believe that on one level the
northeast jam bands attract audiences who expect their future
accomplishments to be hard fought, and see this new ethic reflected in the
ass-busting groups who combine wake-and-bake demeanor with constant road
work. You think it's easy playing one-nighters up and down the coast?
Think again.

Who's playing Saturday night at Nectar's in Burlington? Who's at Bogie's
in Albany this weekend? And who's going to entertain the tripping
thronglet at SUNY-Binghamton's Terra Grooves 95 spring bacchanal held in
the school's Nelson Mandela Room? I can relate the answer to the last
question from personal experience: Ominous Seapods, Yolk, moe., and
Conehead Buddha. Along with Moon Boot Lover (and minus Conehead Buddha,
who should ripen awhile), these bands represent the cream of the upstate
crop I've heard, with moe. and the Seapods the creamier standouts.

"This is the second sober show we've played this week," observed moe.'s
bassist. "Do you mean the band or the audience?" I asked. "Well, both," he
replied. "Except for all the people tripping, of course." With acid and
mushrooms more accessible than ever, this definitely isn't your big
brother's neopsychedelia—as in droning repetition, pointless guitar
solos, masturbatory drum solos, and stagnant rhythms.

The modern jam unit is more likely to include a thumb-popping funk daddy
(most likely some mutant spawn of Bootsy Collins and Phil Lesh) linked
tightly to nimble drumming, a ridiculously febrile guitarist or two
capable of surfing a wide variety of effects and styles, witty if
inscrutable lyrics, and a tweaked and probably overripe group mind
cultured during long hours spent thisclose in the band's house and van.
Reared on punk and sixties nostalgia, their tunes are likely to veer
unexpectedly into thrashing hardcore, jazzy prog-rock flourishes, uptempo
ska statements, extended guitar solos billowing into the stratosphere,
shit-kicking bluegrass jams, deep dub, and impromptu psychotic breakdowns.

With a T-shirt, poster, and self-produced album or tape to sell over there
by the wall ("Don't forget to get on our mailing list"), the modern
upstate jam band bides its time, making an OK living shuttling from gig to
gig waiting for . . . I dunno, the opportunity to do it right like Phish,
I suppose; or wrong, like the Spin Doctors, who blew their substantial
grassroots following with—as their former fans refer to it—Little Miss
MTV. What's remarkable is the lack of self-consciousness that so
markedly
distinguishes these groups from their more artistically tortured British,
New York, or Los Angeles counterparts. As musically sophisticated as they
can be—and believe me, they can be—Art's the tasty glaze on the sacred
dancefloor (or head dance) imperative.

Nothing could be more consciously artless, after all, than the Ominous
Seapods, from Albany, whose funkadelic charisma evokes dimly recalled
seventies porn films, Pere Ubu, and Television. The quintet brought Terra
Grooves 95 to a singularly pagan orgasmic finale with the Butthole
Surfers-like mutant majesty of Leaving the Monopole. Rhythm guitarist
Dana Monteith has a real flair for wake-and-bake media macabre and sleaze
guignol in songs like Mr. Blood (about a butcher) and Hey Donnie
Osmond
(Why Do You Walk That Way"). Seapods' lead guitarist Max Verna, who
writes
most of the rest of their material, has a Tom Verlainish flair for earthy
lyric sincerity that evolves into spiraling extended solos that cut
through the evening like jagged glass. This month the Seapods are in the
studio recording a follow-up to last year's "Econobrain" (Ominous Seapods,
897 Lancaster St., Albany, NY 12203), an uncharacteristically dark set
recorded live at Bogie's; you can hear them at Wetlands next month.

Yolk is the Sons of Champlin to the Seapods' Quicksilver Messenger
Service. Binghamton's best group generates a chaotic mosh pit of ska,
rantcore, and soul. Guitarist Dave Fitzhugh lends the band its distinctive
voice. Even further out on the soul tip is Moon Boot Lover, an immensely
boogieful quartet that takes the live-at-Bogie's econodisc route on its
second album, "Live Down Deep" . Guitarist/singer Peter Prince is as feisty
a superhero soulpuppy as you'll hear belt a Stax-influenced tune. Go for
the hooks but stay for jams that take the long way home. An Empire soul
club indeed.

Since heading back to the bars, I've heard rumors of several other
more-or-less locals worth further research. Groups like Burlington's
Michael Ray and the Kosmic Krewe, a Sun Ra Mardi Gras experience often
augmented by Phish's guitarist and drummer, or Jamestown, Rhode Island's
Sons of Papaya (yet more phriends of Phish). Actually, I'd be inclined to
listen to just about any of the groups whose homemade discs are
distributed by the Home Grown Music Network (Leeway Productions, PO Box
3107, Greenville, NC 27836), which specializes in this sort of thing. The
Wiggly Compilation (ColorWater Productions, 28 Melby Lane, Roslyn, NY
11576) is another good introduction, although several of the bands
included therein exhibit the boogie damage and overwrought karmic clichthat just drag the scene down, man. But you needn't scrape the bottom of
the barrel with wild and risky groups like San Diego's Jambay, Ohio's
ekoostik HOOKAH (cq) vanning across the heartland on a regular basis.

It's all terribly unfashionable, of course. The funky-fresh hippie
experience is anathema in the land of the McIndie burger. Where the latter
emphasizes style and gesture, the former takes an exploratory plunge into
the ritual passageways of improvisatory hijinks. Why limit yourself? It's
not as though moe. doesn't have tunes; they've just enhanced the filling
with hot guava jelly. It's readily apparent that this music's at least as
much fun to play as to listen to, and that's justification in itself.

By the way, did I mention the Jazz Mandolin Project, Acoustic Junction,
and the rest of the bluegrass revival apparently getting underway up
north? Ask me about the sometime. I'll be the old fart hanging out by the
soundboard.

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