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Published: 2004/02/07
by Tom Baker

moe., Fox Theater, Atlanta, GA 1/31

The writer William Least Heat Moon coined the term "blue highways" for his book about traveling along America's sideroads, the winding and lesser-known paths off the interstates printed in blue on old maps, the long detours you take if you really want to see something interesting. The blue highways aren't as efficient or easy to navigate as the big roads—they'll take you the long way around, and you might feel lost at least once or twice. As moe. drove the Fox Theater audience through an extended exploration of "Timmy Tucker" last Saturday night, stopping to pick up a couple of Morrisons along the way, I remembered Least Heat Moon's book and realized that winding and lesser traveled blue highways make an apt metaphor for the average moe. show. This is not the type of band to stop and ask directions, no matter how crazy the road gets.

Of all the acts currently grouped under the jam mantle, moe. showcases some of the most brilliant chops your ticket money can buy, specifically the back-and-forth alchemy of Chuck Garvey and Al Schnier's guitars sparking around Rob Derhak's spectacularly nimble bass. When a moe. jam reaches its apex, the rewards are bountiful; this band can plateau with some of the most euphorically textured playing you've ever heard, an arresting blend of guitar-hero fireworks spiced with reggae bounce and a generous taste of C&W twang, as stunningly original as it is sonically precise, as American as those little highways twisting all over the map and connecting the places you never knew you could reach. There's a catch, though—to get to that magic spot, you're gonna have to indulge them while they take a few detours. This is a band that can ramble, not always to good effect, and they may test your patience; if you're riding with moe., get ready for the map to be thrown out the window and to still be driving hard even if the gas needle is tickling the "E." For example: that "Timmy Tucker" incorporated a mini-drum duel between Vinnie Amico and Jim Loughlin and an extended game of musical instrumental chairs, with Garvey taking over Derhak's bass, Derhak taking up Schnier's keyboard, and Schnier joining Loughlin on percussion. The song spun, rose, and fell like one of those carnival rides you aren't really sure is safe until even some of the most seasoned moe.heads in the audience weren't completely certain where we were.

To be honest, moe. is at actually their best when they exercise some restraint and keep things hot, as in the opening "32 Things"—which still rolled for better than ten minutes— with Garvey's ferocious playing leading the way through the blissful vocal layers of the chorus. The first set actually bordered on concise (for moe., at least) while still including vintage songs "Stranger Than Fiction," "Akimbo," and "Seat of My Pants" along with the newer "Lost Along the Way," culminating with an appropriate cover of the Allman Brother Band's "Hotlanta." It was in the second set that the things got long and winding; "Spine of a Dog" begat a lengthy and elliptical "Time Ed" before the new "Letter Home" set up a closing run of "Kyle's Song" > "Kids" > "Timmy Tucker." Whether it's BOC or Skynyrd, Aerosmith or ABB, name-checking and in jokes are usually a prominent part of the moe. experience, and even if the stage banter was relatively minimal tonight, the climactic joke was complex and quintessential: "Timmy Tucker" sandwiched a cover of Van Morrison's "Gloria" done in the vocal style of another Morrison, Mr. Mojo Risin', including bite-sized pieces of the Doors' "Break on Through" and "The End" for good measure.

Most people know the Doors more because of Jim Morrison's outsized, um, personality than the musical skill of Manzarek, Densmore, and Kreiger, even though latter years have seen a renewed appreciation of that band's talent and improvisational bent. But while the other Doors might have been overshadowed and even occasionally hamstrung by their frontman's indulgences in their heyday, moe. is truly a collective effort, and when Derhak tweaked the Oedipal climax of "The End" by telling father he wanted to borrow his power drill (or so I thought, at least; I may have to wait for the tapes to be certain, given an unusually muddy vocal mix), a more benign Lizard King was holding court, without the sneer or menace or leather pants, and this little piece of downtown Atlanta could finally see city limits and familiar sights again. The capacity Fox crowd lapped up the straightforward encore of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Okayalright" before calling the band back for "Y.O.Y.," and the majority of the 5,000 plus in attendance probably would have taken more, too. Like any veteran driver of the blue highways, moe. would probably swear they were never really lost no matter how hairy the going got. After the show, the Fox patrons tumbled back into the chill, some looking a little carsick but otherwise no worse for the wear. As for moe., having treated this classic theater to a minor classic of a show, they stood at night's end just as unrepentantly impish as ever, looking for that next town and theater to take on another wild, long joyride.

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