Twenty years ago, bassist Rob Derhak was manning a day gig at a flower shop on Bryant Street. The already wonderfully eclectic band the bassist had started at the University at Buffalo with his bud Chuck Garvey was much more likely to be seen playing a humble abode like Broadway Joe's than it was to be throwing its own weekend-long music festival.
Within a few years, the original members of moe. — Derhak, Garvey, guitarist Al Schnier and drummer Jim Loughlin — were strongly considering kicking their day jobs to the curb and investing everything they had in the collective they'd named after the Louis Jordan tune "Five Guys Named Moe."
The choice would prove to be a fortuitous one. For though the layman is much more likely to toss out the names "Goo Goo Dolls," "Ani DiFranco" or even "Rick James" when queried concerning Buffalo's biggest musical exports, it is indeed moe. that has proven to be the most singularly enduring of the bunch. That the band has managed to become as much without toeing the music industry line is something its considerable fan base deems worthy of celebrating.
This weekend, as moe. comes home to headline shows at the Erie Canal Harbor Central Wharf on Friday and Saturday evenings, the Buffalo contingent of that fan base will be doing just that. A moe. show is a party, no doubt, and is one that is associated with the jam-band scene the group arrived just ahead of. But it is also a celebration of eclecticism, and an insistence on musical integrity. For moe., this has meant retaining the spirit and single-mindedness of the independent musician.
"We have really been incredibly fortunate," says guitarist and co-founder Garvey, speaking to The News by phone as the band prepares to launch the summer tour that will include the annual Moe.down festival, this year's version of which is shaping up to be the band's most ambitious yet.
"We've been able to do exactly what we wanted to do all along, and we were blessed to find an audience willing to go with us pretty much wherever we went. This is not something that is lost on us. We're thankful for it, and we feel a responsibility to protect the things about us that our audience values," Garvey said.
This philosophy of preserving the group's core artistic values has meant that, apart from a brief association with Sony in the '90s, moe. has been an "indie band," even if folks more commonly considered members of that tribe might blanch at the suggestion. (Because of its improvisational acumen, moe. has commonly been labeled a jam band; indie-rockers, generally speaking, don't like jam bands.) So the group's latest offering, christened "Smash Hits" with tongue firmly in cheek, saw release on its own Fatboy Records imprint.
It's fitting, then, that "Smash Hits" doesn't really have any "hits" to boast of at all. Moe. has never been a radio band, even though the Sony album "No Doy" boasted material that easily could have been pushed as "radio stuff". Rather, the collection is packed with moe. "classics," as voted on by family members, friends, fans and the guys themselves.
"I can't remember whose idea it was in the first place to base all of this on a vote," says drummer Vinnie Amico. "But the idea was to gather together the material that might form a great introduction to the band for a first-timer. The band has been together for 20 years — it was definitely time to do a greatest hits collection, even though we've never actually had any hits!"
Licensing the Sony-era songs from the band's former label, which owns the rights to the original recordings, proved problematic, so the band decided to re-record the material in question. This proved to be a smart move; before they knew it, the moe. men had turned "Smash Hits" into a reconsideration of some of the band's most beloved concert staples, so that instead of a "greatest hits" catch-all, the album became a contemporary updating of past glories.
"We play these songs differently now, with so much time having passed and so many live shows gone by in the years since we first recorded some of them," says Garvey. "The songs grow with you. Also, with the changes in recording technology, we were able to get much better quality recordings today then we were able to in, say, 1994."
Still, though it boasts much of the ensemble interplay than can make a moe. gig a transcendent event, "Smash Hits" also drives home a point about the group that might get overlooked — it is, first and foremost, a band that is about the songs themselves first, and the jams second.
"Every song has to have that core, a strength of its own," says Garvey. "You can always embellish it later on, you can help it grow through performing it live. The concerts are a completely different thing. They are 'in the moment' events, and they should not be the same thing twice. What we've managed to do over the years, I think, is to take some of that joy that is the secret ingredient in the live show and bring it into the studio, so that the albums have that magic, too."
"Songs are definitely where we're at," adds Amico. "We're good musicians, definitely, but we're all self-taught and, in that sense, untrained. Some of the people in what you might call 'jam bands' are far better musicians than we are, in the technical sense. But because of the way we've learned our craft, because of our limitations, we were able to concentrate on what it is that makes us unique. And that's the songs themselves, and the particular way we approach them live."
It seemed a no-brainer when, a decade back, the band commenced presenting its moe.down weekend festivals, initially on a rather humble basis but now on a grand scale. Rather than assemble a lineup of jam bands, however, moe. went for something different.
"We like an awful lot of music in a really wide variety of idioms," says Amico. "It's not like we're all even jam-band fans! (laughs) So when it came time to work on the festival, we started a wish-list, whittled it down based on who was actually available, and came up with something that we think is pretty fresh and exciting."
"I hate to rely on a cliche," laughs Garvey, "but variety really is the spice of life. Moe.down is meant to reflect our really broad span of musical tastes. The idea, really, is for people who might not otherwise give some of these bands a chance to come away thinking, 'Wow, that was really cool and different.' Why bother to give listeners something they totally expect? If they are willing to open their minds to something different because they trust us a bit, then we feel like we've used whatever influence we have in a positive way."
Toward that end, this year's moe.down — Sept. 3 through 5 at Gelston Castle Estate in Mohawk — boasts an ambitious bill including the Black Keys, Jakob Dylan, Built to Spill, Tortoise, Phish bassist Mike Gordon's solo band, bluegrass virtuosos the Punch Brothers, the Ryan Montbleau Band, MacPodz, and even Buffalo's own underground garage legends Monkey Wrench, among others. (The whole lowdown on moe.down is available via moe.org/festivals/moedown.)
Not surprisingly, both Garvey and Amico view their performances this weekend as part of the Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor series, as a homecoming of sorts.
"It's definitely special to play Buffalo for us," says Garvey. "It does feel like coming home, to carry on and add to the conversation we've been having these past 20 years."
moe., with guest Keller Williams, plays the Erie Canal Harbor Central Wharf at 5 p.m. Friday. The band returns Saturday for a second show beginning at the same time, with guests Donna the Buffalo.
Tickets are $20 per day, through Ticketmaster.com and all Ticketmaster outlets. Following Friday's show, moe. drummer Vinnie Amico will join his former band, Sonic Garden, for a pair of sets on the patio of the 3rd Room, 56 W. Chippewa St.