moe. is King of the Castle in moe.hawk

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Over the span of their astounding 20-year run, moe. has built a foaming, frothing, and fevered pack of fans, semi-affectionately known as moe.rons. To celebrate their anniversary, the band is crisscrossing the country, snazzily outfitted in stylish suits and playing with all the fire of a teenaged guitar band that just learned its first song.

In celebration, thousands of dedicated moe. fans came from far and wide to spend their Labor Day weekend in upstate New York at the 11th annual moe.down Music Festival.

nature.jpgmoe.’s inspirational blend of longevity, vitality and stellar musicianship draws fans in and converts them from casual listener to fanatic at the turn of a phrase and the striking of a chord.

The moe.down music festival (September 3-5) found a new home this year, on the estate of the ruined Gelston Castle. Built from the promise of a dream of a young girl, the castle sits now slumped in on itself, revealing a new kind of beauty in its decay. The grounds were spacious and while that made the trip in packing gear a grumbled affair, the vistas provided and freshness of air were well worth the effort. One could see for miles, and the music would echo out into the night.

Known for a more laid back, relaxed schedule, moe.down featured a spacious main stage and a smaller second stage adjacent on the left.  Music went on in a nearly seamless fashion with acts warming and tuning while others performed.

Setting the bands up to play continuously with no breaks or sets missed due to conflict is a welcome relief to these fans plagued by constant heartbreaking musical decisions that need to be made at the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink festivals. This is all well and good, so long as the bands themselves can hold their own. This year’s crop of complimenting bands did just that, filled in parts of the lineup and soundscapes to be heard, reinforcing themes and adding new dimensions to the audio palette to be experienced.

Friday

Tortoise has gone from a heady jam collective to a group of densely knowledgeable multi-instrumentalists who change what and how they play to fit the groove. This lack of stage-ego allows them to go places that few other bands can, and they seem to revel in the freedom. Tortoise has settled into a reliable unit that builds compositions through variety, with crashing cymbals counterpointing drones and hums coupled with fast strummed lead lines. The crowd was with them from the start as organ flourishes gave way to humming Theremin styled waves of sound.

Continuing the day-long theme of auditory agility, the Macpodz showcased their adroitness by leaping from sound to sound, style to style. One moment it was as though a splashy brass funk band was present while the next, a Latin jazz ensemble would form before finally settling into a fine smooth groove to which the crowd could move. The crowd responded to the blend of sounds with a dancing fervor, getting down with not only enjoyment of the sounds being put down, but also with the beats that were to come.

16.jpgThe pairing of hip hop hero Nas and reggae royalty Damian Marley might seem odd, but their mutual flows go well together, intertwining and complimenting each other in ways even they didn’t expect. The beats swung back and forth from the staccato rhythms of the street to the dub-heavy sounds of the islands. One can quickly come to see them as merely facets of the same jewel. Damian leads the crowd in song, while Nas leads the crowd in mind and body, lyrics that provoke thoughts of unity and serving as reminders to look alive and celebrate the day.

With a fiery band backing them, and a seemingly tireless hype man waving the old school Jamaican flag on high throughout the show, the duo shared hits from the past and tracks from their newest collaboration, Distant Relatives. They took a moment to share the genesis of their latest album’s title, the knowledge that we all come from the same place, that we are all one. This simple truth, delivered plainly through word, and elegantly through song was the heart of the message, and rang true throughout the mass that had assembled to witness the sounds of Kingston high upon a hill in upstate New York.

After the second of the Macpodz’s three, hour long “Tweener” sets, it was finally time to get to the…Meat…of the day, the first big moe. set.

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The dark clouds had come, and the rain was coming and going in waves. The weather situation dampened exactly zero spirits and the band was greeted with an amazingly hearty welcome from the crowd.  From thunderous openers to actual thunder, the love of the fans was never in question.

It seemed like the zombie apocalypse could start and moe. fans would still be there dancing to the music ‘til it was their time to get bitten. With crowd favorites like “George” and “Akimbo” mixed with the excellent new tune “Puebla,” moe. showed quickly and decisively why they could command their own festival, and did so with a surety and tenacity of a seasoned warrior band.

The summation of their strength was provided by guitarist Al Schneir, whose audible pyrotechnics have been known to be overshadowed by his wild onstage theatrics. Schnier walked to the edge of the stage and appeared ready for some of his trademark rabble rousing at the front of the stage as he was greeted by a wall of rain. Although he paused for a moment he cocksuredly walked right out, three piece suit and all, and presented the audience with nothing less than a master thesis on Rock Star Behavior 101: step one, no matter where you go, rock the hell out. Step two, see step one.

Playing a full hour longer than the schedule dictated, moe. signed the dotted line, assuming ownership of the stage. Others would use it the rest of the weekend, but it was clear that actual proprietorship was moe.’s alone.

Saturday

The early morning stragglers shuffling to get coffee and scrumptious breakfast from the vendors slowly gave way to bright cheerful faces, eager for the day’s fun. With a few short call backs to the preceding day’s rain, the new day was here, and was it was greeted with much joy.

First up on the side stage was New York native act, Turbine, who started our day off right, bringing a little of the old school rock to the festival. With an authentic rock sound that mixes a bit of rock, harmony and some wicked jams, Turbine bears watching because after all, one can never go wrong with a wicked harmonica solo. With the end of their first set echoing, the main stage beckoned with another genre to embrace, the Bluegrass rooted Punch Brothers.

The Americana core of The Punch Brothers – led by Chris Thile (Nickel Creek) and Noam Pikelny (Leftover Salmon) – gives them an instant shared vocabulary with any fans of the type, and the remaining few were fast brought ‘round by their simple yet layered sound- no giant effects or histrionics, just plain ole’ picking goodness. Their second album, Antifogmatic is selling well, and the band is starting to get noticed by some major media outlets, with a Letterman performance on the horizon. It seems that the sky is the limit as far as they the Punch Brothers are concerned. Turbine whirled back into action nearly instantly upon the ending of the Brothers set, keeping the feet moving and the spirit of the day alive.

duel.jpgmoe. came out to play their traditional family friendly set, featuring a wicked guitar duel between Chuck Garvey and Al, while bassist Rob Derhak refereed and generally stayed the heck out of the way of this battle of titans. As moe. has grown in legend and prestige, so has their large circle of fans, friends, and family. As the species does, new fans are born to take up the struggle, and a portion of the set was given to letting these most junior of moe.rons have a taste of stage life, parading out to form a chorus line of cute, kicking and singing along with the classic, “New York City.”

Kicking off immediately after was Orgone, a funk outfit hailing from Los Angeles. Steeped in the classic funk style, with driving rhythms and sweet, soulful lyrics, Orgone is a big band that delivers a massive sound. It is the kind of sound that has its own gravitational and at times seeming celestial pull. The crowd surrendered and became a mass, a living throbbing pulse of life.

Speaking of dance parties, beat and groove masters, Lotus, were up next on the main stage, and their sound test flowed directly into the opening of their set. Lotus has developed a significant following in and of themselves, and their opening number, “Bellwether,” received one of the biggest cheers heard for any band other than the headliners. The crowd kept the dance vibe sparked by Orgone alit, and as the set progressed the entire crowd became a sea of waving arms, bobbing heads, and sweaty bodies. The energy released could have easily powered the main stage itself, becoming the coolest perpetual motion machine ever.

After a near nonstop hour and a half of bouncing, Orgone retook the second stage to help kick the party into overdrive. Late arrivers who had missed their first set became fast converts, and the party swelled into the biggest crowd of the weekend building for the soon to come second headlining set from moe.

The list of moe.’s achievements and boundless generosity to various charities over the years is endless. As they have grown in spirit, wealth, and family, they have shared both financially and personally. It’s not a one way street for the five guys named moe. They seem to want to give back as much as they receive. From giving folks a chance to register to vote to a booth from the fine folks at Technaflora teaching folks about sustainable gardening, the main strip was more than just a selection of fine foods and crafts, though those were available in abundance.

Meanwhile, the first slapped snaps of a bass string rang out signaling the massive intro line to “Plane Crash.” As the thump rang out in the dark, the second day’s fireworks began. A choice “Paranoid Android” (Radiohead) cover showed the band’s dynamic range, as they often choose their covers for almost comic purposes.

Opening the second set with the classic “Seat of my Pants” got everyone back into proper moe.d instantly with a slowly built set that ramped up as it progressed. Building consistently, the bombastic closeout of the frantic “Not coming down,” “Wormwood,” and the triumphant call back and closer “Plane Crash” had the crowd lost in a nirvana-like state of blissful inundation, with some folks dancing and some locked still as they all processed the information in their different ways. The only true commonality was the smiles that shone as far as the eye could see.

With a gentle release of an encore in the song “Faker,” the crowd dispersed into the camping environs for late night shenanigans and tomfooleries. Hopefully, they got some rest somehow because the next day was the last chance to dance.

Sunday

grace.jpgThere were two separate sunrises on Sunday: the first was when the star Sol rose in the east, and the second when Grace Potter took the stage with her band the Nocturnals.

Unabashed in her playful sexuality, Potter once again used her feminine charm to wrap the audience around her each and every one of her fingers, managing to both distract men and impress women alike with the power of her beauty. Comically, these types of theatrics would normally be used to hide a lack of talent, or some such shortcoming. This is definitely not so here. As Potter sang with the strength and power of a soul tempered by a life of passion and experience, her band backed her with equal prowess. Make no doubt, Grace is a force far beyond any playful sex kitten image. This image serves only as the adornment meant to distract you from her real weapon, her talent. As her beauty is to her talent, she herself is to her band. With her whirling megavolt smile beaming it is easy lose sight of the bed rock solid band backing her, the Noctournals.

Adding to the day’s theme of raw talent on display, The Black Keys took the stage shortly thereafter, and made their perennial point about the usefulness of simplicity. Bombastic to the point of doing damage to the stage itself, The Black Keys is a collaborative effort between producer, guitarist and all around music maven Dan Auerbach, and supersonic drummer Patrick Carney. As has been oft noted, this duo can easily be mistaken for a five man band. Though they do sometimes feature a bassist and keyboardist, for the most part Auerbach and Carney are a two man gang, wrecking up the joint and wailing in the oldest of rock ways, pared down to the true essentials, guitar, drums, and voclas. Boiling their songwriting down to a minimalist style to match their instrumentation, their point is hammered in by precision snare drum snaps and heavily distorted waves of guitar. A show from The Keys leaves one as physically exhausted as the band itself.

A final tweener set from east coast faves, The Brew, who never disappoint, cleansed the fury from the minds of the attendees and got them ready for the main event: The third night straight of moe. madness.

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A fan with a wild look in his eyes was overheard to say “Bust it open!” As if on cue, the familiar bass line intro to “Buster” began and a deliriously happy crowd sang the song with the band at the top of their lungs. No holding anything back, it was the last day and time for moe. to get it on. Over the course of their two decade existence, the band has honed their diverse influences into a fate-inspired combination of talents and personalities. Improvisations are sometimes called audibly and just as often, grown organically. As said by Rob from stage, “Let’s do that thing where we jam into a song.”

The versatility of moe. starts in the drum section, with Vinnie Amico and the ever so versatile Jimmy Loughlin.  Amico sits behind his trademark wall of drums while Jim roams around a veritable percussion pit all his own, with acoustic guitar and electric washboards thrown in for good measure. This night even saw Loughlin come out from behind his kit for the rare “Farmer Ben,” a high wire rap requiring a little spitting of the fire, as it was. The two percussionists worked together to provide the snap and force upon which the rest of the moe. sound is built.

Rob Derhak would ride his bass like a crazed train conductor throughout the night, barely keeping the train on the tracks while the two headed beast of Rob Garvey and Al Schneir traded hot licks and cool lines, taking turns until they were forced to wail as one. In these moments of ascendant fury, fans were turned to moe.rons, and moe.rons were turned to puddles of goo.

Upon the return to the main stage, an attempt at a moment of silence was followed by the fest’s quirky tradition of electing itself a mayor.  moe.rons travel from coast to coast to have the honor of calling themselves mayor, though the fest does have a history of electing wildly inappropriate inanimate objects as its Mayor.  This year “Rage Lincoln” beat out the rest of the field through the stunning reading of his self-penned “Headiesburg Address,” read by Derhak himself.

After a celebratory dance by the new Mayor, a small “Moth” was sighted with a valuable lesson to teach us about priorities. The rest of the set was a blur of smiles and cries of joy from the crowd, yielding the perfect meeting of fan and band. Left exhausted by the onstage pyrotechnics, a wild encore capped by a call back finishing of “Moth” gave way to actual pyrotechnics in the sky above. The band’s family, along with those of the road crew and staff of the festival gathered on the main stage to watch along with the fans as the sky filled with bursts of color and the cannon reports echoed through the hills, not unlike the music that had only just finished for the weekend.

This weekend’s festivities provided a testament, again and at last, to the love engendered by the five guys named moe. As we filed out of the concert grounds one last time, there were cries of sadness at songs not played, and plans made for the coming year’s moe.down.

Click the thumbnail for more shots of moe.down from Rex Thomson

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