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Buffalo-born jam band returns to play the waterfront on Saturday

In their 20-plus year career, moe. has gone from an upstart band of UB students to a fixture of the Buffalo music scene, to one of the world’s top jam bands. To date, the group has cut 10 studio albums, released 10 live albums, started a record label, and thrown countless pun-intensive festivals all over Upstate New York. Often compared to the likes of Phish, Umphrey’s McGee, and, of course, the Grateful Dead, moe. has managed to walk the fine line between bass-slapping, guitar-soloing, free-rein improvisation and writing coherent, tight, stand-alone singles. Like any jam band worth its weight in incense, moe. has a devoted core of fans who follow the tour every year. To keep things interesting for these diehards, moe. won’t play the same song within five or six shows, ensuring each and every show is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Now back in the Buffalo area after a stint in Europe, moe. is gearing up for two special occasions: playing the Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor on Saturday (June 30) and moe.down, the eponymous weekend festival moe. throws every year, this time to be held in Turin, New York. Artvoice interviewed guitarist and founding member Chuck Garvey about these two shows, plus a whole lot more.

AV: So let’s get the basic stuff out of the way first—are you guys excited for moe.down this year?

Chuck Garvey: We are. We’re going back to the original site where we had it for years [in Turin, New York]. The lineup is going to be really good, too.

AV: I understand it’s a bit earlier this year—is there any reason for that?

Garvey: Well, for years it’s been during Labor Day weekend, [but] that’s a big travel weekend, there are a lot of other shows that weekend, kids are going back to college that weekend, so we’d been talking about moving it to sometime earlier for a while now. It’s a better opportunity for nice weather, too. Everything’s on track and seems to be going great.

AV: Do you guys still consider yourselves part of the Buffalo scene, or do you consider yourselves more national in scope?

Garvey: We definitely have been touring the lower 48 all the time, and we’ve been going to Japan since, like, ’98 or ’99—we go about every year—and we’ll go back and we’ll either do a tour or sometimes we’ll play Fuji Rock Festival. That’s all been really great for us—it’s fun to go there and play in front of people and a completely different culture. Just recently we went to Europe and that was also a lot of fun—we’re going to try and go back there as soon as we can.

AV: When you get back in town, what’s the first thing you do, and why?

Garvey: SPoT Coffee. Because we all need coffee. Music stores—places like Top Shelf Music, and the food, of course. We usually talk about where we’re going to eat and plan out all our meals.

AV: Does it come down to either Jim’s Steakout or Mighty Taco, or do you try to branch out a bit more?

Garvey: [He laughs.] We do make an effort to go to Mighty Taco and Jim’s Steakout—I went to Jim’s last night, actually. We also talked about going to the Pink Flamingo to get a steak sandwich at midnight.

AV: Is playing a Buffalo “home show” any different than playing Japan or Europe? Are the local fans more knowledgeable or more “into” what you guys do?

Garvey: When we come to Buffalo it’s basically like a home show—we have a lot of friends. It’s like having your family come, so it’s definitely a big home base for us. We really look forward to it.

AV: I understand you guys are one of the more “song-oriented” jam bands out there.Was this intentional? Was there a moment where you all sat down and said, “All right, we want to be this,” or did it evolve naturally over time?

Garvey: It was natural. When we started there wasn’t the term “jam band.” But obviously there were improvising bands out there like Phish and the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. That’s kind of where we come from. But we also have a great love for pop music and just more structured music in general. When we started out we were covering anything from Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, Elvis Costello, stuff like that, Frank Zappa, King Crimson—there are a lot of weird elements, and all of our personal tastes just started to get blended.

In the beginning it was more about that, but there was always a need to have the core of the song be set, and if we can do the improvisation and all the other dressing, well, that was like a bonus. We always definitely wanted the songwriting to be good and memorable and for each song to stand on its own.

AV: I imagine it takes a lot of work to all stay on the same page while playing live. How much time do you guys practice in a given week?

Garvey: At this point we can wing it, but we don’t always. For example, we just did four shows with Gov’t Mule, and did some newer covers, and covered a Gov’t Mule song, so there’s this process where we are always trying to come up with new stuff that people will be interested in, and rehearse, and then incorporate our own new music. We also do things like get together during our time off for like three days at a time and just work on our songwriting and new material. We do that before the big events, too.

AV: Are there any bands that are playing right now that you’re a really big fan of?

Garvey: You know, that’s a tough one. There are a couple of bands I kind of go in and out of, like finding new bands and getting absorbed by their music. One guy that I found out about years ago who I keep going back to again and again is this guy named Andrew Bird. He plays violin—he’s a classically trained violinist—and he does this really spooky, unique, dense music. It’s not rock or folk—it has this classical influence with this gypsy jazz thrown in…It’s good to just stumble into things and get submerged in something.

AV: For you most recent album you guys changed record labels from Fatboy to Sugar Hill. Is there any reason behind that? Is there still a future with Fatboy?

Garvey: Well, Sugar Hill made this album—we came up to them and they were very positive about it. We both thought we could help the other out, in a way. They really took a chance on us, because we didn’t fit their type. But they wanted to branch out and do something a little bit different, and I guess that was us. [laughs] They’ve been really great. We just released this album and we’re already talking about the next one. A label like Sugar Hill can really help us get the word out maybe a bit better because they have an infrastructure that we don’t have. Plus they’re great people—you don’t get lost in the shuffle of a giant label. It’s been a positive experience so far so we’re going to try and do another album, hopefully. They have a lot to offer us.

AV: moe. was formed at UB. I’m a recent UB grad myself. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for recent grads?

Garvey: I don’t know. [He laughs.] There’s one thing I think all of us would agree on: The city of Buffalo has a lot to offer with its underground art scene. It’s a great place, culturally—the community is great. It’s a great place to be a part of. That’s one of the reasons we stuck around after we got out of school. I don’t know if that really helps anyone, though.

But you can definitely take your experience of living in Buffalo and apply it to the rest of the world. I don’t even know exactly what that is. [He laughs.] Something unique and great happened here, and we still have strong ties to our friends and our community, and that’s something you want to try and cultivate, even after you finish college and move away. I think that’s an important thing to maintain, and it’s been a really positive thing for us.

AV: Is there anything you’re just dying to tell me? Is there anything moe. really wants to get the word out about?

Garvey: Well, moe.down is a big thing, and we’re pretty proud of it. It’s not that far of a trek from Buffalo. It’s just a great fun camping weekend, and the lineup is going to be really great this year, and if you haven’t been before it’s definitely something you want to check out. Talk to your friends who have done it before.

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