Holy Moses

Aufheben is the name of Moses Guest's new label. The term is German for (roughly) "creative maintenance." Basically it means onward with only the best of the old, and upward with something new and improved. Aufheben is everywhere on this old band's updated sound. Whether Houstonians will buy it is something else. Three New Ditties, an EP that delivers on its title, is a good indication of where Moses Guest is trying to go. As a primer to an upcoming self-titled double-CD of new studio material, Ditties is a bold statement of purpose from a band that is simultaneously rediscovering its roots and finding its future. Some sonic additions include the use of a Dobro, pedal steel, banjo and more vocal harmonies. "We've gotten to where we want to be," says lead vocalist and guitarist Graham Guest, sitting at the Last Concert Cafe with bandmates keyboardist Rick Thompson and drummer James Edwards. "It's more adventurous, but we've kept enough of the ear candy in there to draw in the curious."

And unlike in years previous, the quartet, which includes Jeremy Horton on bass, has some major-market successes to enjoy. Two of Moses Guest's songs are slated to be played on MTV's New Orleans Real World series, and a recent citywide victory in the H.O.R.D.E. tour's battle of the bands earned the group a slot on the festival's Antioch, TN, stop.

The band has always had potential, and Ditties may indicate the outfit may finally be realizing it. "Best Side Up" perhaps best embodies this flowering, particularly when its careening pedal steel line is laid on top of an up-tempo boogie beat. It's a huge sound, as befits the huge city that the band calls home. The stunning, ten-minute-long "Rag Doll," with its horn flourishes and churchified organ, rollicks along in a funky Memphis soul vein. This is jam band music, to be sure, but jam band music that bears the indelible stamp of Made in Houston, a town the members are sanguine about, warts and all.

Whereas each musician was once pessimistic about the Bayou City's ability to nurture a band of Moses Guest's persuasion, each now feels a growing optimism that he is part of an outfit that's ripening with its city. Sure, the guys still bitch about certain elements of Houston's infrastructure, but instead of just complaining, they try to do something about it, which might mean doing nothing at all but working. Relocating to Austin or L.A., just for name recognition, isn't an option.

Though it didn't have a name, Aufheben has always been part of the group's evolution. From the original Moses Guest trio, the band has grown new rings of sound with each passing year. Geniality of Morality, Moses Guest's 1996 debut, sounded a little rushed and was smudged by an occasional grunge riff or two. Enter Thompson and Edwards, HSPVA grads and confirmed jazzbos. Their jazz inclinations, when combined with Guest's earthy affinity for Southern rock and his hard, sweet guitar tone, helped push the band into a rare new hybrid, as heard on 1997's American Trailer Home Blues, which showcased Moses Guest's bold strides toward artistic freedom. On Home Blues, the band had obviously learned to relax into its grooves, and the arrangements grew elaborate and interesting. "Burning Around the Sun," in particular, was a stance on this newer, mellower ground.

Graham Guest is the brains of the band, but has never been brainy. With a law degree and comfy day job under his belt, Guest supports his music the old-fashioned way: He does it himself. "Every penny I make in my day job goes right back into this band," he says. "This is truly my dream, and that's what I do it for."

Adds Thompson: "Besides, we capitalize on his torment; we revel in his agony."

Thanks to Guest, Moses Guest is still doing its thing. Pretty curious in a business where bands that don't make it overnight are thrown in the has-been bin. Last time the Houston Press talked with Moses Guest, in 1997, there were rumors of a breakup. "We are a happy bunch of people," says Guest. "We're survivors. I can't see us not going on." Thompson shares Guest's optimism: "We're aiming for that Steel Wheelchair tour."

Words like "organic" and "grassroots" crop up a lot in conversation with the band. The quartet and its retinue -- the Sporl brothers, Jon and Jeff, and computer whiz Matthew Ryf -- function less as a band per se and more as a cottage industry. The outfit is trying to stage an assault on the big time in baby steps, the better to stay there once it arrives. "Bands that hit it big fast burn out fast. Bands that work on it longer tend to keep their fans longer," Guest says, citing the continued success of the Dave Matthews Band as an example. With this concept in mind, Moses Guest confines its tours mainly to the Gulf Coast and Rocky Mountain states, hoping to win over first the West, then the nation. Its brand of rootsy rock has big appeal everywhere, special thanks to bands like Matthews's.

The group is concentrating on making Moses Guest work. Thompson, for one, is -- after performing with Mary Cutrufello for six months -- dedicated solely to Moses Guest. And the reconstituted lineup, Guest insists, has been road-tested and mother-approved. On the new EP and especially in concert, all cylinders are firing. Though "mature" and "experienced" and whatever other euphemism you can think of for "been around the block," Moses Guest is primed for its breakthrough year.