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Caught in a jam

Meet moe, one jam band at the center of a thriving subculture where community is as important as the music.

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 2005


James DeVito pumps his fist and flexes a tattooed arm. Midway through an afternoon set on Day 2 of a three-day concert, his favorite band - read the tattoo - has just launched into "Buster," his favorite song.

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The group, moe, had "teased" the tune the night before, plucking a few echoing notes before careering into another piece.

This time they run with it.

Crammed close to the stage at the Snow Ridge Ski Center and spread halfway up the deep-green slope, other fans, too, erupt in cheers, a familial feedback loop that seems to lift the smiling band.

Most in this camped-out crowd know the material well. Mr. DeVito, from Long Island, has seen moe 17 times in the past two years. Gary Scheller, a Grateful Dead disciple who has followed "jam bands" - groups known for their highly interactive, free-form live performances, the songs morphing into extended improvisational musings - since 1967, says he now sticks to shows closer to his home in Omaha, Neb. - except for moe or the Bonnaroo festival, the jam scene's annual "Woodstock" in Manchester, Tenn.

Ten years after the death of Jerry Garcia ended the long run of the Grateful Dead in its original form - and one year since the breakup of Phish, the Vermont band considered by many to be its spiritual successor - improvisational groups appear to be widening their collective fan base.

A relative granddaddy, moe was formed in Buffalo in 1991, the start of a rich decade for the genre. It has won both critical acclaim - Rolling Stone magazine gave its 2001 album, "Dither," four stars - and a fiercely loyal fan base typical of the offbeat genre's greats, among them Widespread Panic, The String Cheese Incident, and the more mainstream Dave Matthews Band.

Call it moe-mentum. This "moedown" over the Labor Day weekend - 16 bands on two stages - is now in its sixth year.

In a sign of the broader jam-scene's growth, Bonnaroo's producers have created Vegoose, a multivenue jam-band festival set to première next month in Las Vegas. "The whole jam-band vibe has definitely expanded," says Alan Miller, president of Filter Creative Group, which publishes Filter, an independent-music magazine in Los Angeles.

Among the reasons, say observers: fans' quest for community in the isolating age of iPod - and for unexpected and singular musical experiences in which they are active participants and not just the target demographic of rockers some see as increasingly corporate.

"The key to all of this is that [the band] is not just the 'supplier,' " says James Twitchell, a professor of English at the University of Florida, Gainesville, who writes about communities of interest and popular culture. "It's not as if some music impresario is twirling his mustache and saying, 'Let's trick these kids.' It's the 'consumers' who are essentially colluding, and generating this vibration."

The crowd shapes the show

For moe, the course of any given performance is a function of what's working at any given time, says Chuck Garvey, the band's lead guitarist. Its playlist is fluid. And the crowd shapes the show.

Random happenings do, too. At Turin last weekend, keyboardist Al Schnier brought his son, Benjamin, on stage for a brief planned appearance. When Ben left the stage, little sister Ayla walked on for some impromptu vocals, after which Mr. Schnier segued into "Chopsticks," as if to signal complete surrender to his toddlers' whims.

The concert, taped by scores of bootleggers (fan recording is openly accepted), was classic jam-band fare: A one-off combination of songs, snippets, and meandering riffs that draped a new aural tapestry over a thrilled live audience that ranged from young teens to graying boomers with children in tow.

"They might egg us on to push the outer walls of a song further and further," says Mr. Garvey of the crowd. "They'll say, 'Yeah, do it, we want you to do something new.' Well, we want to see something new, too.... More magic happens when you do things like that than when one person makes the decisions."