Jam band circuit veterans Moe’s show on Tuesday night at the Virgin Mobile Mod Club was a bit of a personal milestone for me. They had opened for Bob Dylan in 2000 at the Molson Amphitheatre, which happened to be my first real concert experience after immigrating to Canada. Wide-eyed and innocent as I was back then, I thought Moe were fantastic. Deep basslines, airtight rhythms, and facemelting fretwork that seemed to stretch into eternity – what’s there not to like?
Nearly a decade and a half onwards, these road warriors from Buffalo are still at it, their musical formula still intact. They’ve never commissioned any of their songs for Goldman Sachs commercials, they’ve never hijacked your Itunesaccount during a marketing coup d’état, and you’ve never even heard any of their songs on the radio. Instead, the band has quietly gone about plying their trade through the jamband circuit, churning out s labyrinthine tunes with unflagging energy and enthusiasm. And so when the band came to town, an army of the faithful descended upon the Mod Club.
The band opened things up with “Buster”, an off-kilter, bass-heavy workout from their 1996 album No Doy. 1998’s “It” followed soon after, featuring some seriously greasy slide work and a chorus that was reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Effigy”. One of Moe’s calling cards over the years have been their seamless transitions between songs. The band’s ability to morph through different keys and time signatures was on display in the “The Road > McBain > Down Boy > The Road” sequence that closed out the set. This longer suite allowed the band the space to flex their improvisatory muscles as they snaked their way through xylophone solos counterpoised by the dense basslinescourtesy of Rob Derhak on “The Road”. “McBain” glided along a knotty funk groove that would have made Primus proud before segueing back into “The Road”.
Through most of the set, the band displayed a nearly telepathic sense of communication that is a product of twenty-five years on the road together. To my ears however, the band’s strength might have also been their weakness: as great as their chops are, too much of the set sounded like an extended version of the “Freebird” solo. Judging by the dance party on the floor however, no one else seemed to mind.
For me though, Moe’s performance raised some interesting questions. How is it that something as atavistic as dudes playing largely instrumental, improvisatory guitar-based music maintains such a devoted following? It is possible that Moe have tapped into a tradition that has deep roots in North America: the spirit of exploration.
As problematic as the concept of manifest destiny is, the pioneering spirit and the desire to explore the farthest reaches of the continent shaped the North American cultural identity. This is the same impulse that animates Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Ginsberg’s stream of consciousness incantations. It’s the same sense of instantaneous self-discovery and self-determination that is found in the Coltrane’s free jazz explorations. In the ‘60s and beyond, a particular sub-genre of rock and roll, as best exemplified by the Grateful Dead, transmuted this spirit, and Moe are the direct descendants of the Dead. The harmonic convergence they manage to achieve with the audience is nothing short of the ritualized enactment of the same pioneering spirit that allowed the first settlers to thrive in this continent, just with more dancing and less genocide.