moe. & Chris Robinson Brotherhood 4.15 & 4.16.16

Words By Coleman Schwartz
Photos By Scott Shrader (J. Scott Shrader Photography)

Listening to moe. was one my very first forays into the jam scene back in 2010. I have always admired their songwriting and ability to improvise, in addition to the uniqueness of their sound. In recent years, I haven’t found myself listening to them as much as I ought to. There is so much else going on that I honestly had stopped thinking about them. The announcement of this run in the Northwest piqued my interest, and it seemed like a good chance to assess how the band was doing in 2016. With a couple of awesome venues and old-school psychedelic rockers, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, co-headlining, it made perfect sense to road trip down to Portland from Seattle with some friends, then return the next day to catch the Seattle show.

-Friday April 15, 2016-

Wonder Ballroom
Portland, OR

We arrived early to the Wonder Ballroom, found a close parking spot, and then headed to my go-to dinner spot before a Wonder show, Queen of Sheba. This hole-in-the wall Ethiopian joint serves up amazing veggies on a large piece of injera, a flatbread pancake that doubles as your utensil. This was the perfect way to restore my energy from the drive down and prepare my body for a long night of dancing.

Returning to the Wonder, we walked in a few minutes before Chris Robinson Brotherhood took the stage. This was my first time seeing the band or any of its members perform, so there was a lot for me to take in musically. The first thing I have to mention is that Neal Casal is an absolute monster on guitar. I knew he had to be a fairly prodigious musician to be selected to compose all of the intermission music for ‘Fare Thee Well,’ but I had no idea of the full extent of his talent. I’m glad to say I won’t be sleeping on any more opportunities to see him perform.

As a group, CRB serves as a vibrant link to a bygone era, while still keeping things remarkably fresh and innovative. Their sound is an eclectic blend of psychedelic rock and Americana, but during the improvised sections they ventured into funkier territory. Keyboardist Adam MacDougall has found an extremely tasteful way to integrate the synthesizer into what the band is doing, and it helps push their jams in a spacier realm than I was expecting. Putting all of this together gives you an experience that is enjoyable to a diverse swatch of music listeners.

Chris Robinson himself is a legend outside of this band’s work, and he really ties the sound together with his impassioned vocal efforts. His voice has that perfect nasal twang that really pops next to a fingerpicked guitar, and between him and Neal there is no shortage of that dynamic here. The two men have an effortless connection when they play together, showcasing the results of years of practice. Their interplay, both vocally and on guitar, is justifiably at the centerpiece of the band’s sound. They flat-out rocked the house, and the moe.rons seemed extremely appreciative of what the group had to offer.

Although it was a co-headlining bill, CRB only played a single set. moe. was up next to unleash a full two-set performance. The sextet came onstage grooving and never stopped until set break. “Big World” opened up the festivities with some phenomenal Al Schnier falsetto crooning. The catchy vocal melody had everyone in the crowd getting down early in the set, with Chuck Garvey absolutely ripping the lead guitar part. The resulting jam eventually found its way to the Latin-infused grooves of “Ricky Marten,” a standard setlist pairing with “Big World.” This song saw Al taking on some additional lead duties, unencumbered by his vocals. Towards the end of this jam, bassist Rob Derhark authoritatively dropped the bassline to “Billy Goat” and moved the band forward into that song, as percussionist Jim Loughlin got his first chance to bust out his vibraphone. This song is centered around Rob’s vocals and bassline, and kept the show flowing outstandingly. Jim was tearing it up on the vibraphone during the jam, but still keeping to the back of the mix.

After a solid 25-minute opening frame, the band slowed things down a bit with “Do or Die,” another Rob-sung tune. This hard rocking song is more in the vein of Widespread Panic, and features some great screamed lines in Al’s vocals, which contrast the soft parts well. After a break to tune up, the group began to play the vocal intro to “Spine of a Dog,” causing the audience to break into cheers. This song’s nonsensical lyrics are beloved and memorized by most moe.rons, and getting the entire room singing along is one of the best ways to really get the party going.

The party continued in a big way as the jam segued right into “Buster,” one of the band’s quintessential heavy-hitters. This one contains a wonderful, jazzed-out breakdown that is masterfully accented by Jim and drummer Vinnie Amico’s forcefulness. The groove from this breakdown propelled the group into a lengthy jam that saw Rob getting into some dirty slap-bass, before slowing down for a few minutes. Out of this well-executed tempo change came a transition into the set-closing “Cathedral,” which helped everyone to wind down nicely for a break in the music.

Second set eased back in with a nice rendition of “Silver Sun,” before diving into “The Road.” This song saw the band unleash some of their amazing three-part vocal harmonies. Neither Rob, Al, nor Chuck is afraid to push their voice right up to (and sometimes past) its limit, and their fearlessness pays off in a big way at times like this. Their vocal style works so well for them, and as an added bonus is totally inimitable. I started to freak out during the jam because I saw Al take a seat and begin working on his keyboard. Surely enough, he began to tease out the opening melody to “The Pit,” doing so alone for a bit before Chuck and Rob joined in.

“The Pit” is one of my all-time favorite moe. songs, so I moved closer to the stage for a good look. Al uses a nice Rhodesy setting on his keyboard for the song’s riff while Chuck capably smashes the devilish guitar part on his own. This foreboding song is about hell and the devil, though the lyrics don’t go much deeper than that. It has a great, dark sound and usually gets really chaotic improvisation. This jam featured lots of vibraphone, until Rob took over the spotlight and started slapping. This paved the way for the band to move into “Timmy Tucker,” a classic tune that easily stretched over twenty minutes in this slot. It contained a few jams, each punctuated by Rob’s great vocal. The end of the composition saw the band jump right back into “The Road,” driving the crowd totally wild. The band kicked it into high gear to perfectly finish out this glorious second-set sandwich.

The set was nicely capped by “Wind It Up,” with the crowd screaming its refrain “Be on my side, I’ll be on your side!” as Jim got a well-deserved chance to play lead on vibraphone during the composed section of the song. Al spent most of this song on keys playing around with his effects, producing some crazy background noises. They saved us a fat encore, with robust takes on “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Downward Facing Dog.”

This was the most fun show I had seen moe. play in several years, and this warmed my heart. The world is a happier place to be when moe. is playing up to the high standards they have set for themselves, and as long as they can keep delivering like this I know that I will see a lot more of them in the future. I’ve seen them play a couple of underwhelming shows before, but this was one of the nights that accentuates the upside that always keeps me coming back.

Set One: Big World > Ricky Marten > Billy Goat, Do or Die, Spine Of A Dog > Buster > Cathedral

Set Two: Silver Sun, The Road > The Pit > Timmy Tucker > The Road, Wind It Up

Encore: Stranger Than Fiction, Downward Facing Dog

-Saturday April 16, 2016-

Showbox Market
Seattle, WA

Chris Robinson Brotherhood again started things off at Seattle’s Showbox Market. The group mixed things up for this set, understanding that many of the fans had also attended the previous show. My favorite song they played during this set was their cover of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” It is always fun to see Dylan’s amazing songwriting reinterpreted by a band that is ready to jam the song out a bit. Casal did a great job of preserving the composition’s unique energy with his solo, while still making it his own.

CRB is an interesting group because they are all older musicians, but the group itself is still young. Their history attracts a large portion of their fanbase, but this newer project frees them from many of the expectations. They have a safe place to experiment with new songs and styles of music, while still remaining true to their roots in a Grateful Dead-oriented Americana style. It is wonderful to see such new exploration from veteran musicians, because they are still pushing themselves and their boundaries onstage every night, and it keeps the experience novel for the fans.

Before moe. came onstage, Al’s double-neck Gibson SG was attracting lots of interest from audience members. Someone asked me if he would actually use it, I assured them he would. Surely enough, he came out and picked it up for the first song of the night, as the band opened with “Plane Crash.” This Rob-penned number is one of the group’s biggest crowd-pleasers because of its catchy chorus and the death-defying solo from Al. This was the perfect way for them to open the show because it captured the audience’s full attention from the first moment. They followed with an abrupt, jerky number that is aptly titled “Spaz Medicine.” This one did a great job of keeping up the energy, and it was clear that the band intended to close out this tour in style.

The next chunk served as the meat of a delicious first set, a 37-minute span including four tunes. First, they grooved through the Latin-infused sounds of the instrumental “Mar-De-Ma,” finding their way into “Bring It Back Home,” which dropped the tempo a bit but still kept the crowd moving and singing along. The improv on this track got into spacey, Grateful Dead-influenced territory, with Jim adding in some tasty vibraphone licks over the top of the mix. This flowed nicely into “California,” an up-and-down song that the band used to toy with the crowd a bit. The jam went towards uptempo jazzy elevator music behind a driving bassline, with Jim getting a chance to lead on vibraphone. The elevator groove continued as they worked their way into “Don’t Fuck with Flo,” with Rob getting in some wacky spoken-word vocals, until he shouted the song’s title and the instrumentals turned towards rock stylings. The jazz groove quickly reappeared, and the band enjoyed switching back and forth between jazz and rock modes a couple of times before starting to jam in earnest. The improv went in a funkier direction for a few minutes, before the return of the familiar jazz vibraphone to cap off a brilliant segment.

To close out the first set, the band invited Chris Robinson to join in on the fun with a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Deal.” Chris capably handled the lead vocal on this track, and the crowd roared in appreciation. Seattle crowds tend to respond very well to Dead covers, and this occasion only served to reinforce that point. This was my first time seeing moe. do a Dead cover, and they delivered just as well as I knew they could! The band seemed to have a lot of fun having Chris onstage, and the room was all smiles as the set reached its conclusion.

One thing that was very different about the Showbox performance from the Wonder Ballroom show was that the band had a far cooler light rig in Seattle, likely due to cramped conditions onstage at the Wonder. They were using some powerful LEDs that I had not seen a band use previously, and it made me wonder (pun intended) just how much more epic the previous evening’s show could have been if they were accommodated.

The second set was a jammed-out, five song affair. They started off with “Awesome Gary,” and ripped through a nice funk jam before a patient segue into “32 Things,” which sent the crowd over the edge. Rob’s slap bass intro had people screaming, whistling and preparing to get down. As the song’s chaotic vocals made their entrance, the vibe inside of the venue was jubilant. Vinnie’s frenetic drumming initiated a great dance party that persisted throughout the jam and into the vocal/slap bass reprise.

Everyone enjoyed a well-deserved breather before the set continued. The next track started off with some heavy power chords before the reggae-tinged, slow groove of “Seat of My Pants” made itself apparent. Among moe. songs, I think this song is one of the most complete pieces of music. It showcases their trademark rapidfire vocals and harmonies, while giving each member several nice chances to show off their instrumental prowess. Chuck’s lead part is infectious, and gives the entire song a sound like the listener is flying uncontrollably through space. The improv reached a chaotic peak before the song descended back into Chuck’s beautiful tension-releasing lines, then the band thrashed briefly before moving onto the next verse. The next jam was much slower, and pointedly directed towards a deft segue into “Opium.” At this point, our photographer Scott (normally a very relaxed guy) seized the evening’s award for ‘most enthusiastic concert patron,’ by pretending to kick over a trash can at the rear of the venue. It just goes to show how hearing a favorite song can awaken your inner beast mode!

“Opium” is a slow-building moe. classic, and this version contained a jam that made me feel like I was wandering the desert in the heat of day with an empty canteen. This was caused by the heavy guitar delay as Chuck and Al bounced riffs back and forth. To close out the set, the band erputed into “Moth,” an interesting lyrical tune. The chorus astutely points out that moths “know everything about life,” but “nothing at all about living,” a fascinating quandary. After this one, the band had raged nearly up to the curfew. The crowd brought them back for a quick “Captain America” encore, and just like that the night had come to an end.

After seeing four sets of moe., I am extremely impressed with the way they are currently playing. When they are on, as they were this weekend, they remain one of the strongest bands in the jam scene, both vocally and instrumentally. It is great to see them still performing at this level as they push on towards their 30th year as a band. I may be guilty of counting them out previously, but this run showed me that the band is unquestionably still deserving of the respect heaped onto them by their diehard fans. Whenever they return to the Northwest, you can bet I will be hitting as many shows as I can!

Set One: Plane Crash, Spaz Medicine, Mar-De-Ma > Bring It Back Home > California > Don't Fuck with Flo, Deal*

Set Two: Awesome Gary > 32 Things, Seat of My Pants > Opium, Moth

Encore: Captain America

* with Chris Robinson


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