Warts & All, vol. 4 – moe.
Over the past decade, moe. has slowly blossomed into the quintessential jamband. A steady ballroom draw, whose setlists shift nightly and whose concerts often resemble family gatherings, moe. captures the essence of the jamband experience. Despite being essentially a rock-based outfit, moe. has also crafted a unique sound out of the hippie-rock blueprint: rooted in upstate New York's punk edict, refined through steady touring among humble Midwestern hippies and, finally, polished within the confines of the Northeast's grandest theaters. And while many of its peers, from Yolk to God Street Wine, have since closed up shop, moe. continues to thrive. In fact, along with String Cheese Incident, the Buffalo-bred group has come to define the jamband rat race for the mainstream media. So, at times, it's easy to forget that for a portion of its career, moe. was considered the bastard child of jamnation.
Essentially, moe.'s evolution can be divided into four phases. Following their Buffalo college ska-punk period, moe. acted as Albany, NY's primary jamband ambassadors, owing more to Primus's cartoonish basslines than Phish's carefully charted jazz-fusion offerings. Next, the group tried its hand at jam-pop, signing with Sony, tightening its compositions and turning out a series of song-oriented albums. Along the way, the group nurtured a sizable, dedicated following, but was labeled as "jam-light" by Tent City's more critical citizens. Yet, sometime around 1999, things started to change. Slowly replacing bar appearances with ballroom dates, moe. fine-tuned its sound, also blending former drummer Jim Loughlin into the mix as a second percussionist. While this upward shift at first stagnated moe.'s more risky experiments, Loughlin's presence eventually helped the group expand its musical palette, allowing de facto band mascot Al Schnier to enhance his guitar tone with unique effects, computers and synthesizers. But, like any band, moe.'s evolution has been slow and gradual, filled with slight twists and turns.
Recorded in 1998, at the tail end of moe.'s ascent through the club ranks, Warts & All 4, in many ways, proves the value of this archival series. While the group’s official live albums, such as 2000’s controversial concert compilation L, offer a more comprehensive overview of moe.‘s sound and songlist, Warts & All 4 documents a specific moment in the Buffalo-bred band’s history when they were flanked only by drummer Vinnie Amico, whose sturdy beat firmly grounds the group in the world of rock. Slowly weaning cartoonish half-songs out of its set, and replacing such material with the guilty pleasure pop-rock documented on Dither (the group’s last attempt at mainstream success), moe. was clearly in a period of transition when it entered Carbondale, Illinois’s Copper Dragon on July 18th, 1998. But, unlike most bands, who tighten their sound as they find more success, moe. simultaneously seemed to loosen its bolts, jaded by its failing Sony relationship and ready to break free from the rest of the summer festival pack. So, it’s a rare treat to hear a goofy reading of "Havah Negilah" shortly before the breezy, alt-country of "Water," in addition to now semi-retired numbers like "Bearsong." And, while such novelties will be lost on casual fans, for longtime moe.rons, it’s these bursts of adolescent band energy which capture moe.‘s essence and make the Warts and All releases essential artifacts.
A two-set show presented on three jam-packed discs, Warts & All 4 can be divided into a trio of mini-albums. Like many of the group’s first sets, disc one is a collection of well-defined songs, stretched slightly beyond their breaking points. Over the years each of these numbers, including choice versions of "St. Augustine," "Happy Hour Hero" and "Recreational Chemistry," have rightfully earned spots in jam-nation’s core canon. And, while not the most adventurous version of each offering, disc one showcases moe.‘s delicate balance between song craft and solos. Indeed, it is the strength of numbers like "St. Augustine" which has allowed moe. to survive for well over a decade. Not that this disc is a concert recreation of a studio album. Both "Happy Hour Hero" and "Recreational Chemistry," stretch past the ten-minute mark, with Rob Derhak oftentimes assuming the role of lead bassist.
Disc two, on the other hand, is an unintentional nod to the Jerry Garcia Band — a group known to use reggae and gospel to color its spiritual jams. A leftover track from set one, a cover of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" sets the mood for the first half of moe.'s second set (and second disc). Breezing through a version of the bizarre "Dr. Graffenberg," moe. shifts into a jittery, ska-like beat before launching into a version of the Jewish melody "Havah Negilah." A pairing of an old country-rock jam, "Time Ed," and an — at the time — unreleased jam vehicle "Water," positions moe. as jam-rock traditionalists. With Amico flying solo behind the kit, moe.'s jams lack the wide-open Frank Zappa backdrop which characterizes its current sound. At the same time, it fashions the group in the vein of a young Allman Brothers Band, building tight jams around twin-guitar leads and pronounced, melodic basslines.
But, for fans new and old, it's the third disc which renders Warts & All 4 essential. Opening with an engaging version of "Yodelittle," which bursts with energy from Schnier in particular, moe. proves its improvisational might, offering a tight set-length medley. Clocking in at over 17 minutes, "Rebubula" previews the more muscular, dark jams moe. would embrace in the early 2000s. Further linking moe. to its jamband forefathers, the group offers a somewhat skeletal cover of "I Know You Rider," which lacks the finesse of the Dead’s interpretation, but contains the country-rock authenticity which initially lumped Haight-Asbury within the larger cowboy-rock community. (hint: fans of the Dirt Bombs should check out this cut) A track labeled as "banter" lives up to its name, helping reaffirm this show’s feel and tone. And, finally, moe. caps off its performance with a successful version of "Bearsong," an old, lost classic now seldom played.
More than anything, moe. is a band of survivors. Having outlasted almost every other third-generation jamband, moe. has established a successful framework and proved to be a bankable international live draw. In fact, at times, moe. remains so focalized in the jamband bedrock that it's easy to forget how much moe. has evolved since its days as the Wetlands' unofficial house band. Luckily, discs like Warts & All 4 are both historic and entertaining — proof that a still vital band can successfully revisit its not-so-distant past.