What goes around comes around : moe.down 2011

moe_down2011-17.jpgLabor Day is set aside to reward the hard-toiling members of America’s workforce, but somebody seems to have forgotten to tell the band moe. For 12 years now, they’ve spent Labor Day weekend hosting the giant party known as moe.down to thank to their dedicated fans, the moe.rons.

Held in upstate New York where the band formed and found their over two-decade-old voice, this year marked the second in its current location just outside of Mohawk, NY in the shadows of the Gelston Castle ruins overlooking the valley below that, for the weekend, is filled with eager music fans looking to celebrate the conclusion of the summer season in style, dance and song.

Over the course of a career, moe. has spread its musical jams across the world, toasting major successes and paying every imaginable due along the way. Their ravenous fan base, filled with admirers in search of the release found in the sound, follows the band from ski resorts to the Caribbean.

By headlining three of their own festivals and anchoring others, moe. has earned the right to let their hair down for one weekend a year… and that weekend is moe.down. They invite bands that they want to see and jam with and structure the schedule so that no band plays against another. A relaxed environment is created to focus of one’s attention where it belongs: friends and the music.

Friday

Due to its steep, rocky nature, the terrain of the Gelston estate does not lend itself to vehicular traffic. Therefore cars are parked away from tents – something of which some other festivals need to take note. But the old adage “this is no hill for a stepper” certainly applies when it comes to moe.rons, who spare no lode when it comes to carting in campsite decorations and accoutrements.

moe_down2011-5.jpgBy the time New Mastersounds were taking the stage, the hill was filled with happy campers, fresh from setting up a sprawling tent city and ready to hear some funky music. The Mastersounds did not disappoint, as funk (of the British flavor) is their specialty. Guitarist Eddie Roberts, whose monster chops are almost obscured by his easy-going stage persona, seemed to have the entirety of 60s and 70s London guitarists’ skills at and in his fingertips. He easily led the Mastersounds’ signature sound, switching between pointed rhythm and effect-laden solos. Between the exquisite stage and the dry British banter between Roberts and drummer Simon Allen, the Mastersounds made the most of their spot on the side stage.

There are so many completely different and yet targeted ways to describe Ween that it’s almost impossible to accurately describe what they do. From punk to Irish folk, with thrash metal and just a smidge of lounge crooning for good measure, Ween is their own genre.

With so many sounds melded into one set — and in some cases, one song — one may suspect that musical anarchy would ensue. But somehow, this is not the case and though the songs crafted are of wide ranging influences, Dean, Gene Ween and company somehow manage to keep each song coherent.

moe_down2011-6.jpgKnown for putting on wildly varied shows from night to night, Ween seemed intent on winning the guitar-loving moe. fans over early, starting with “Captain Fantasy” and the percussive “Take Me Away” that hooked the crowd and cleared the floor for the Pennsylvania natives to do as they wished and to take the appreciative crowd with them.

They did just this, evidenced by the uproariously cheering mass who responded particularly well to the Irish folk ditty set closer, “The Blarney Stone.” Later that evening Dean Ween was milling about the crowd, with something in mind: looking for a good spot to watch the weekend’s workhorses…in his words, the “five guys named moe.”

There aren’t many acts that can play ten plus hours in front of the same audience over three days and have their biggest worry be the songs they won’t get to play, but moe. is definitely one of them.

For maximum audio quality and protection of the audience’s fragile minds, the percussion duo of Vinnie Amico (drums) and Jim Laughlin (percussion, whistle and washboard) was housed behind Plexiglas screens. However, in clear defiance of OSHA workplace safety regulations, there was no protection from the madness brought by moe.’s three-headed frontline of Rob Derhak (bass) and the dynamic duo of Chuck Garvey and Al Schnier on guitar. Fans were faced with the full fury of a rock band in its prime, on its home turf and in the mood to let it all hang out.

The rousing intro to “Captain America” received thunderous crowd approval and the weekend was truly started. An old school set with a fierce “Skrunk > George” and a whirling xylophone accentuated “Dr.Graffenburg” served as highlights of the set.

By the time the band came back out for their encore — in the form of a justifiably extended and meaty “Plane Crash” — it was plain to see on all the faces, band and fan alike were right where they wanted to be. After mentioning they’d be back in just a few short hours for their traditional day set, the moe. mob walked off to cheers and pleas for more.

Saturday

moe_down2011-15.jpgWith everyone mostly arrived and set up, Saturday started early with up with Texas blues guitar phenom, Gary Clark, Jr. and his band. Bringing an earnestness and truly soulful edge to his playing, he has an added weapon to his blistering leads: a voice capable of balladry and mournful tales of loss. Clark’s latest EP Bright Lights has been called a “clinic on blues guitar” and got a rave review in Rolling Stone. All the praise is well deserved, with few blues players bursting onto the scene more fully formed than Clark. Playing since he was 13, his ascent has been a steady one, but it’s a path that stretches wide before him.

Bluegrass and roots mavens Railroad Earth opened the main stage with “1759” and took the crowd on a journey of wry observation and charming musicianship. Even the most fervent devotees of effect-drenched guitar were spotted swaying to the breathy songs and honest way they were presented. Solos from Tim Carbone (violin) and John Skehan (mandolin) astounded, and vocalist/guitarist Todd Sheaffer kept a consistent vibe of laid back, good-natured confidence.

Sheaffer led the band with a quiet control, smiling towards everyone as he passed the duties of lead around the stage. The set concluded with the crowd conditioned to appreciate anything, as long as it was played as well as the wonderful set of music just performed.

moe. returned to the stage in sunglasses and a chipper mood, ready to have fun with the day. Their annual day set is known as a time for the “big sky” numbers like “St. Augustine” and “Moth,” songs that seem to benefit from the drenching light. It’s no coincidence that this set is also the slated time for the the annual “Kids Parade,” as moe_down2011-18.jpgthe many children of the band, friends family and audience are marched through the crowd and led on stage for a little song and dance number. This year saw the tune “Nebraska” trotted out, complete with a wild array of costumes and silliness that filled out the stage. moe. clearly took delight in the “aww” factor of the little ones — including an earphone-protected baby — onstage, and made no attempt to hide their smiles for the rest of the set.

New York indie darlings TV On The Radio took the stage next and brought their densely packed and tightly wound passion to the eager throngs. Another band who, like Ween the day before, can put on a wide ranging show, TVOTR also decided that it was time to have a night of high energy rock. Having climbed the pop charts with albums produced by a variety of high profile music insiders including David Bowie himself, the band’s pedigree shone brightly throughout the set. Any skeptics in the audience were fully won over by the end of the set, and the crowd showered them with praise which did not seem lost on the faces of the band.

Using the side stage as a place for the attention of the crowd during gear swaps on the main stage, Baltimore natives The Brew played three sets of funky jams and covered the gaps while keeping the day rolling towards its inevitable end.

As The Brew wrapped, it was time for the big two set moe. Saturday night.

moe_down2011-26.jpgEvery fan has a favorite thing their band does, and with a band like moe. their answers to that question can be as varied as the day is long. From the rail-riding guitar purists who devotedly stare up at their raging idols, to the percussion enthusiasts that close their eyes and tap their chests in time to the beats, everyone is listening for something.

For some however, their most appreciated part of the band is a little more esoteric…it’s the songwriting itself. From sensitive explorations of love and hope, to songs that sing wishing that you would just “go away and die,” moe. has a song for everyone. Nonsense sing-a-longs, songs of fiery afterlives and redemption, the whole of the human history and emotional spectrum is fodder for their tune-craft. All of this is married to an instrumental attack that is unique to the modern jam scene, a harkening back to the arena rock days, harmony guitars blazing.

First set highlights included a blistering “Akimbo” and the traditional duel between Chuck and Al on a trip down damnation alley to “The Pit” and the show-adjourning number, a memorable “Rebubula.

The second set was a strong set of older, beloved material such as “Meat,” “Don’t Duck with Flo” and “Bearsong,” melded with an attempt at utilizing modern technology that yielded the entire band coming out to play a number on their iPads. In one sense, the display was kind of impressive, but in the end, it’s hard not to surmise that the dog-and-pony was anything but a comment on the button pushers and DJ’s who have been slowly taking over the scene.

Finishing that, the boys picked up their instruments and showed that they had something the digital era could never truly replace – actual talent. The crowd was satisfied and the band took a much needed breather and the wandering hordes went out to look for late night festival adventures.

Sunday

The weather gods had been charitable to this point, but the threatening clouds obviously meant business. With the gathering darkness growing, Los Angeles natives Ozomatli brought funkiness to the proceedings. With horns blazing and an infectious groove, the tired rose to shake what nature gave them in defiance of the ominous skies.

South Carolina’s Dangermuffin took the first two sets on the side stage, and let their surprisingly thick sound wash over the crowd. A blend of Americana and straight ahead rock with some psychedelic aftertastes, Dangermuffin was not too heavy and not too light, providing a perfect musical fit for the mood of the crowd.

moe_down2011-34.jpgTaking the main stage next was a musical heavyweight, Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers. With decades of moving hearts and feet, Hornsby sat behind his piano, took to the front of the stage for a little mandolin and even tried his hand at dulcimer for “The Valley Road” that segued out of “Jack of Diamonds.”

To close out the set, the legendary Bob Weir of Grateful Dead fame joined his old pal on stage. Weir was on hand to share the stage with another legend, Levon Helm (The Band), but found time to join his buddy Bruce for a musically enticing rendition of the Dead standard, “Jack Straw.”

With over a hundred Dead shows played together under their belt, Hornsby and Weir had the easy chemistry that old friends develop. Exchanging smiles and laughs, the two delighted the crowd and managed to draw the attention away from the darkening skies.

Michigan’s The Ragbirds came out and brought their world music influences to the crowd as a delightful palette cleanser. Mixing violin, accordion and drums, front woman Erin Zindel led the band through a varied set list of originals and reworked covers. Melding an African tribal dance song and the old timey standard “I’ll Fly Away,” the multi-faceted Ragbirds created something new and joyful for the entranced assembly.

The ozone in the air was not to be denied however, and as soon as The Ragbirds’ set wrapped, the skies opened up and a flash storm drenched the unprotected and protected alike, seemingly raining sideways under umbrellas.

With the recent tragedy of the Indiana State Fair stage collapse fresh on everyone’s minds, the stage crew took no chances. Security pushed the crowd back to a safe distance, and stood watch while the storm raged. The truest testament to the love moe.rons have for their beloved band was plain to see, however. While most sane people would have fled for shelter, the crowd assembled at the perimeter the guards established, and lined up as if along the concert rail. Chuck side to Al side, they bantered back and forth and held the spots they had since dawn. A little water never hurt anyone, but to miss a moment of moe. from their preferred spot would have been painful, so the moe.rons steadfastly held “their spot.” Finally getting the green light to move back forward, they proceeded completely orderly back to their favored positions, and set up for the bit of music history about to unfold.

moe_down2011-36.jpgLevon Helm has spent his life making history. First as part of Bob Dylan’s backing band when the legend plugged in and changed the way folk was perceived, then with Robbie Robertson and company as The Band, Helm has carved out a legacy that no one can deny. With a catalog of songs he either wrote or performed on that would make any musician envious, he still strives to make each performance special. From his legendary Midnight Ramble events to his limited stage appearances, there is always something to set one of his shows apart from the rest. This particular day, he brought along a true equal, Bob Weir. Even the notion of this cast was treading on the thin “may not live up to its hype” ice. Luckily, this would prove to be anything but the case.

Shaking the raindrops off the stage, Helm led his dozen-player-strong band through a few numbers, notably “Long Black Veil” and “I Know (You Don’t Love Me Anymore).” The crowd was fired up and the introduction of Weir drew great cheers from the soaked musical purists in the audience.

Working through tunes like “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Attics of My Life,” Weir, Helm and company showed the easy chemistry of giants who held equal respect one to another.

The camaraderie was especially evident in “Tennessee Jed,” a rollicking number of open hearted goodness.

moe_down2011-30.jpgClosing with a pair of songs that represented their mutual legacies — “Ripple” and “The Weight” — you could see how both bands mined similar territories, yet with remarkably different results. Those in attendance were fortunate to see such talent share a stage, and the magic that graced the stage added a new dimension and gravity to the proceedings that only a pair of icons could provide.

A pair of sets by Cleveland’s Rubblebucket followed Helm and Weir’s performance, and their raw youthful energy laid a stark but not unpleasant contrast to the more staid presence of the previous main stage bands. Chaotic and openly electrifying, Kalmia Tarver and her band ran riot on the stage, festooned with colored streamers of cloth and whirling in synchronized dances. Kal flourishes on a mixture of powerful vocals, saxophone wizardry and raw feminine energy. The hyped up set was the perfect place setter for what was up next: the last dose of moe. for the weekend.

Following the fiercely appropriate new tune, “Rainshine,” moe. made no secret their intentions for the evening by launching into a loose yet bombastic “Happy Hour Hero,” niftily showcasing the level of comfort the quintet has in sharing the lead.

Succeeding a rump shaking “Ricky Martin,” the audience was treated to the sit-in that almost cried out to happen. Weir walked out to a colossal cheer from band and fans alike, and the spirited improvisation that ensued during the “The Other One > Smokestack Lightning > The Other One” sandwich was something for the ages.

The band seemed to lose themselves in their task, as if wanting to give their absolute best to the occasion. Weir made each song a true blend of styles, his distinctive voice blending easily with the band’s to create a once in a lifetime sound that had every present soul simultaneously focusing and cheering. Closing with “Feel Like A Stranger” that came complete with yet another spacious movement of improvisational goodness, Weir rode the legacy of the Dead to a new place and we were all the richer for it.

moe_down2011-7.jpgThe second and final set of the weekend played like a key to the weekend itself, with songs from every era of the band’s storied career trotted out to the delight of the crowd. A passionate “Wind It Up” set off the set and there was no looking back.

New tunes “Suck A Lemon” and “Paper Dragon” sat next to classics like “Recreational Chemistry” and the energy built and built to a startlingly intense solo by bassist Derhak. While Schnier and Garvey are known for big show theatrics, it’s much rarer for Derhak to showcase his own instrumental skills, and it served as a reminder that he is far more than a popping and snapping singing front for the band.

After a rain-shortened version of the closing remarks from Schnier (affectionately referred to as “Al.nouncements”) the annual moe.ville mayoral election was held. As is often the case, it turned into a runoff between an inanimate object (in this case a wig representing Rob’s recently shorn rocks) and last minute write-in candidate Weir. Unable to decide between the two, Derhak offered the concept of combining the two, and a mayor was crowned… Bob Weir with Rob’s hair.

Closing out the night with a double dose of fun, a “Spine of the Dog > Seat of My Pants” one-two punch, moe. left the stage with a sincere thank you and wishes for a safe journey home. Their last words, “see you next year,” were echoed by the crowd in kind.

The fact that this same crowd, and more like them, will happily return in one year’s time to do it all over again speaks volumes to the love moe. has earned from its many years of paying dues and spreading their energy as far and wide as possible. What goes around does indeed come around.

Audience Recordings: 

Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers , Dangermuffin , Gary Clark, Jr., Levon Helm & Bob Weir, moe. 9/2/11, moe. 9/3/11 , moe. 9/4/11 , New Mastersounds , Rubblebucket, The Brew , The Ragbirds , TV On The Radio , Ween 

Official Soundboard Recordings: 

moe. (9/2/11), moe. (9/3/11), moe. (9/4/11)

Click the thumbnail for photos From the Fest by Rex Thomson/Rex-A-Vision

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