Deadheads Redux

moe. picks up where Garcia and Co. left off

Like Widespread Panic, like Phish and, yes, like the Grateful Dudes, moe. is a jam band. It does everything long -- songs, guitar solos, transitions, whatever. Yet it's hard to mistake moe. for a modern jazz act or masturbatory "jam" band. Unlike Widespread Panic and Phish (but like the Dead), moe. sounds good on CD, long songs or short.

Funny thing is, some of moe.'s best, quirkiest stretched-out live tunes are, at heart and on disc, mostly three-minute numbers (with the exception of the song "Meat," which stretches the entire length of the 46-minute Sony promotional album titled -- what else? -- Meat). And some of moe.'s best three-minute numbers come from its first album, the self-produced Fatboy. Released in 1992, Fatboy, whose original album cover art was an image of a bra-wearin' cartoon character who looked an awful lot like Jerry Garcia, had always been a hard-to-find collector's item. But that changed last month when moe. rereleased Fatboy on its Fatboy Records label. And while the songs remain the same, the cover art has thankfully (for some) changed.

"[Fatboy] is like our high school yearbook photo," says moe. guitarist/vocalist Al Schnier. "When we did it, it was a glorified demo, but it's been something people wanted and they've been asking us to buyŠ.Finally we conceded to [rerelease] it.

"But we made it clear it was a demo. We don't want people to think it's our lost master recordings."

Fatboy songs such as "Don't Fuck with Flo," "Dr. Graffenberg," (a tribute to the guy who discovered the G-spot) and "Spine of a Dog" are still some of the band's more popular tunes live. They're also examples of what Schnier, Chuck Garvey on guitar and vocals, Rob Derhak on bass and lead vocals, Vinnie Amico on drums and the newest member, former full-time moe. drummer Jim Loughlin on percussion, can do when their sensibilities are focused on good songwriting, not longŠ longŠ long improv.

"[Fatboy] is prepubescent moe., but all the parts that make up moe. are there," says Schnier. "There are the vocal harmonies, the guitar parts. The songs are a lot slower or not as intense or as involved or adventurous. But [Fatboy] has the same character, the same personality of moe. It's just a little more amateurish. More of a sense of juvenile humor."

Songs such as "Yodelittle" and "Long Island Girls Rule" bear out the "juvenile humor" part. In fact, Schnier says bassist Derhak, who wed not too long ago and is now a father, put the kibosh on "Long Island Girls Rule." "He just won't play it anymore," says Schnier.

But long, short, live, dead, at any length, "Spine of a Dog" is still probably the best thing moe. has ever done. One of the best moments at a moe. show is when, out of the silence, Derhak, Garvey and Schnier sing in three-part harmony the first few lines: "You say potato and I say three [repeat five times]Š.Aye-eeeeeee am a pinball ma-chine. / Aye-eeeeeee can't tell the difference buh-tween. / My-eeeeeee belly button or navel, / ping-pong, pool cue or a fuse-ball table." WHOOM, then the music kicks in. It's a four-to-the-floor stomp beneath Garvey and Schnier's jangly guitars and Derhak's swooping bass. Aside from the extended jam in the middle, it's good college radio fare.

moe. was formed in 1991 in Utica, New York, and relocated to Buffalo for, ahem, bigger exposure. The band played local clubs and sold live tapes at shows for $3. Knowing they couldn't make a living on gigs and post-gig sales, the band members scrounged together $1,000 to record in the spring of 1991. Guys in the band who hung out at Top Shelf Music knew that employee Andrew Buscher owned Happy House Studios in town and that he was available for recording work when he wasn't working as the Goo Goo Dolls' guitar tech. moe. entrusted Buscher with its, at the time, life savings.

Happy House was a second-floor apartment. The walk-in closet was the control room, and the dining room was the "live" room, where the band would record its base material. After ten days, moe. had recorded Fatboy. It eventually sold more than 1,000 copies.

With that unexpected if modest success, the band felt compelled to release something else. It cut Headseed in '93 on Fatboy, which was followed by Loaf the next year, also on Fatboy. Loaf, the band's only live record, was the result of two days at New York City's Wetlands Preserve, the place for contemporary psychedelic rock and the occasional hip-hop show. moe. was on the verge.

The band was signed by Sony 550 in 1996, which gave it the chance to record in honest-to-goodness top-notch facilities with honest-to-goodness top-notch soundmen. John Porter (who is formerly of Roxy Music and has produced The Smiths, Buddy Guy and Keb' Mo', among others) produced moe.'s national debut, No Doy, which features the melodic, shiny-happy ode to some chick named Diane, "She Sends Me," and an up-tempo revision of "Spine of a Dog."

Two years after No Doy, moe. released Tin Cans and Car Tires, which was a commercial and artistic failure. With or without Sony 550's support, the record shows how much moe. prefers touring to plugging away in the studio. The album was barely noticed, and with good reason. It's a strained piece of work.

moe. was released from Sony 550 this past April, according to Schnier. The band had fulfilled the first portion of the contract and was left to decide whether or not to fulfill the second.

A new record is expected to be released this spring or summer, and will include input from newcomer Loughlin, whose main instrument live is the bongos. "When you have a jam band, you have the same four guys soloing over and over again," says Schnier. "It's always tricky not to become too self-indulgent or wanky. So part of the reason we added [Loughlin] was to diversify the sound. Take some of that focus off the four main instruments and add more sound."

And while major-label interest for a new moe. studio record is there, according to Schnier, the band prefers the independent lifestyle. Unlike under Sony 550, moe. now owns every note it plays. Well, almost every note.

Like other jam bands today and the Dead before them, moe. lets, even encourages, concertgoers to bring recording devices along to tape shows. Unless the band is recording for a possible live CD (at which point it posts a message on its Web site, www.moe.org, prohibiting recording devices), everything -- from Derhak's usually slap-happy bass solos to those missed cues to those never-ending solos -- is up for the dubbing.

Which is how Fatboy got so popular: dubbed copies. moe., which now distributes a 20,000-wide-circulation newsletter and is the object of nearly a dozen Web sites, has polished its nonmainstream appeal to a fine sheen. Aside from opening up its live performances to tapers, moe. has gotten in good with its fans ("moe.rons") by encouraging communication and a sense of community among them.

Like Deadheads of yesteryear, moe.rons (some of whom are actually ex-Grateful Dead fans) think moe. the band belongs to them. Not to Tower Records shoppers. Not to MTV-watchers. And certainly not to commercial radio listeners. moe.rons want their band to stay away from commercialization and commodification and all those evils of capitalism, though the band and others like it make lots of money selling merchandise. And who buys all those band-related clothes and baseball caps and baby bibs? The fans who say their jam band is so above selling its soul to make a buck.

Some moe.rons, after selling the shirts off their backs for a bootleg, will be sad to hear Fatboy is now available for the cost of a Backstreet Boys CD. Good thing it's all in the name of extended exposure.

moe. performs an all-ages show Thursday, November 4, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Call (713)862-7625.

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