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Moe., Buffalo’s greatest jam-band export, comes home for a two-night stand

The whole thing started primarily at Broadway Joe’s, an architecturally unimpressive bar on Main Street that still operates today.

It was here, in the early ’90s, that our region’s jam-band scene was born. Broadway Joe’s presented an eclectic mix of bands most nights of the week, catering primarily to college students, college-aged music fans and musicians. Everyone seemed to know each other, and things were less strictly defined at the time – a punk-based band like Monkey Wrench might split the bill with nascent indie-rockers Scary Chicken, or Mitch’s Infydels might share its progressive jam-band stylings with an upcoming group of hopefuls.

Just as grunge was exploding out of Seattle, one of these young and abundantly promising bands began showing up regularly at Broadway Joe’s, each time bringing more people and feeding a rapidly increasing buzz. Moe. was formed by students who had met while attending the University at Buffalo; principal among them bassist/vocalist Rob Derhak and guitarist Chuck Garvey. What we now accept as a defined jam-band ethic was more of an unspoken thing at the time. Moe. simply seemed to be making things up as it went along, pulling bits from all of its influences – the Grateful Dead, surely, but also Primus, roots rock artists like the Band, and the more psychedelic leanings of ’80s alternative music.

I first encountered Moe. at Broadway Joe’s soon after the band’s formation, and I experienced its ragged-but-right set as a giddy, booze-drenched amalgamation of deep roots, a searching sense of ensemble interplay and a self-deprecating goofiness that made the band tough to dislike. Now, nearly 25 years later, Moe. will headline shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Town Ballroom (681 Main St.).

The band’s fans loved them, seemingly right from the get-go, and these shows at Joe’s became more like psychedelicized bacchanals than mere club gigs. It wasn’t immediately clear that Moe. was destined for bigger things – at the time, it was just one of many Buffalo bands on a well-stocked must-see list.

In his just-published tome “JAMerica: the History of the Jam Band and Festival Scene,” Rochester-based author Peter Conners gives Moe. plenty of attention, and he posits the burgeoning early ’90s Buffalo jam scene as one of many psychedelic microcosms that would coalesce into a thriving countrywide movement by the end of the decade.

“The Buffalo music scene was really awesome at the time,” Moe. percussionist Jim Loughlin told Conners. “You could go out every night of the week and see every kind of music. Aside from the bands we knew … there were metal bands, hip-hop bands.”

“There is a thriving jazz scene in Buffalo, great acoustic music, so much great stuff, like all the Dead bands that played” there, Conners quotes Moe. guitarist Al Schnier. “And because it’s the second-largest city in the state and all of the college students there, it was on the circuit for all the national touring bands that came through. And last call is 4 a.m., so there was live music all the time. It was a great place to grow a band.”

And grow is exactly what Moe. did. By 1994, the group had packed up and moved to Albany – not exactly a musical hotbed then or now, at least in terms of major-label interest, but a convenient and centralized spot to call home for the group as it built its regional fanbase through near-constant live performance. Within a year, the group had inked a deal with Sony subsidiary 550 Music and released the commercially successful “No Doy” and “Tin Cans and Car Tires” albums, but Moe. was always about live performance, and its independent streak ran a mile wide. So the major label relationship was short-lived. No matter – by the end of the ’90s, Moe. had become one of the most successful and widely renowned bands on the national jam scene.

Moe. took the lead of bands like Phish and Blues Traveler, and began presenting its own three-day festival, Moe.Down, in 2000. Each summer, the festival brings massive crowds to the Snow Ridge Ski Resort in Turin, N.Y., for a diverse and eclectic roster of bands and three full shows from Moe.

Like a jam-band version of the Ani DiFranco story, Moe.’s ascent is based on grassroots growth, touring, word of mouth and a ceaselessly vigilant independent spirit. You can hear the band’s influence in a whole new generation of Buffalo jam bands, musicians who grew up listening to Moe., some of whom can count Moe. concerts among their first live music experiences. Bands like Aqueous, Universe Shark and Funktional Flow appear poised to follow in Moe.’s footsteps, and all are already adhering to the band’s “tour, tour and then tour some” more blueprint.

Conners’ “JAMerica” quotes bassist Derhak contemplating the essence of what those early days of the Buffalo jam-band scene taught him.

“Some of the bands we’ve mentioned, like Monkey Wrench and Scary Chicken, had this great shameless self-promotion to everything they did; that’s how we learned we needed to flyer and do all these … I don’t remember if they started a mailing list or we did, but that was the thing that caught on. They used to give out tapes of their show, so we started doing that. We copied a lot of things that were successful for them ’cause we were just trying to learn what to do. Things like having a connection with your audience. … There was a ‘just ’cause you’re on stage doesn’t mean you are any better than anyone else here’ kind of attitude in Buffalo because it’s such a blue-collar town.”

Yes. You can take the band out of Buffalo, but you can’t take Buffalo out of the band.