As I turned the corner around the tumbling-down Gelston Castle in the fields of rural Mohawk, and beheld the vast concert area of moe.down XII, I wondered if it was going to be possible to give a coherent report on this three-day festival of jam bands.
What the heck, I thought. I’m in with my camera, and I’ll get some interesting pictures anyway. For some readers, just describing the annual event as a jam-band festival will sum up the whole thing, in either a positive or negative light, depending on the reader’s musical preferences.
This was my first moe.down. I’ve been to many festivals in my life, starting in 1974 in Sedalia, Missouri and, more recently, every one of the Mountain Jams down at Hunter Mountain. So I know the potential exists at these events to get totally swept away in a sensory overload of music, sunshine, lights and people. I mananged to remain pretty focused on checking out the music, but describing it is another matter.
When music gets classified into a particular genre, it becomes possible to bring up a mental image of the sound to figure out if it’s something to enjoy experiencing. But the classification can oversimplify and be inadequate in describing the actual mechanics of the sound and its emotional impact on the listener.
Not a big problem with most of the commonly understood genres, such as blues, country, reggae, hip-hop and so on. In a very general sense, they are what they are, and they ain’t what they ain’t, although there are crossovers and musical experimenters there, too. Jam-band music, however, is much harder to pin down; in fact, that’s sort of the point.
Yeah, basically you can picture the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band or one of the other original architects of a style of extended, fluid arrangements that can vary from show to show, covering the terrain of hard rock, blues, jazz, gospel and country. The roots of the jam sound are very tangled and borrow from every genre that came before, with a tendency to expand, explore and go out on tangents that, in some cases, can wind up out on a limb very far away from the roots.
Most of the bands play fairly complex, technically-challenging pieces that are much closer to jazz, particularly early jazz like Louis Armstrong and Dixieland, in dynamic arrangements than to the classic rock, country, bluegrass, folk and blues roots that spawned the whole genre. World music, another absurdly broad classification, has had a major impact on the current Jam-band genre.
Progressive is a term I’ve heard used to describe both the roots of the genre and the forward-moving nature implied in the name, even if the first thing that pops into mind is Yes or Genesis. But you can hear echoes of them, as well as King Crimson, Man, Wishbone Ash and host of others in other genres: Quicksilver Messenger Service, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Cream, Ravi Shankar, Tim Buckley, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Old & In the Way and countless others who bent, twisted and broke the original boundaries imposed by critics and music stores. Perhaps the most famous example of cross-pollinating other styles and sounds was the Beatles, hardly a Jam Band. But they epitomize the Jam-band idea that the sum is greater than the parts.
Indeed, it is that moment at which the audience is listening and the musicians are playing at the very edge of their ability, balancing the music on the point of transformation from the sound of several separate individuals to the sound of a single, living and breathing entity existing in the space that includes both the band and the audience. I’ve heard this magic occur in concerts and performances of even the most rigid musical disciplines, such as classical concerts by master musicians such as the Emerson Quartet, and in high school auditoriums as school bands suddenly discover they are making music and actually swinging. It’s quite thrilling when the players and the audience realize it at the same moment.
So you combine all these styles and elements of different genres, play them very slow and light, then faster, then harder, then faster and harder, and faster and harder… and it goes on and on all weekend. If you’ve got a preference for short, sharp and/or slick songs of the type you will hear on, say, “American Idol” or most radio stations, you might find all this crazy noodling rather boring.
I, however, was fascinated that my attention span was constantly being challenged from the moment I heard the first band which was, for me, Ween on Friday night. The band, consisting of Aaron Freeman (Gene Ween) and Mickey Mechiondo (Dean Ween) augmented by bass and drums, had their fans singing along right away through spacey reggae and manic country. At times the vocals sound altered, although maybe Gene was just singing that way. Following a drum solo, Gene picked up a megaphone for a wonderfully sludgy song followed by a ballad. “I understand it,” he sang, and followed with raw punk chords leading into an Irish drinking song. “Get off my ass, you weepy f…,” they sang, and continued with more hilarious unrepeatable lyrics.
The New Mastersounds, led by guitarist Eddie Roberts, had actually opened the fest and were back for another set, so I was glad I didn’t miss seeing their funky soul grooves get the audience dancing.
Capping off the first night, of course, was moe. The band – drummer Vinnie Amico, bassist Rob Derhak, guitarists Chuck Garvey and Al Schnier and percussionist-vibraphonist Jim Loughlin – needed no introduction to their fans. Without having heard much of this music before I was struck with an excellent bass solo, a firery Zappa-like guitar phrasing in another song, and an uptempo song that sounded like “Sonny” but I don’t see on the setlist which I got from the good folks at Phantasy Tour. I headed home before the band’s encore to rest for the long day Saturday.
Review and photographs by Stanley Johnson
moe. SET LIST
Where Does The Time Go?> Dr. Graffenberg
Deep This Time> 32 Things