How a blue collar band from Buffalo made it for 20 years

by Ryan Snyder

When jam-band provocateurs moe. kicked off their 20 th anniversary tour at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City last month, something looked just a little bit off. The notoriously casual college buddies from upstate New York have long been known as a group of guys who take few things seriously outside of their mind-bending brand of guitar-driven rock improv. But this time around, the five guys of moe. looked a little more dapper than usual. To both the surprise and bemusement of their rather laid-back fans, the band had busted out a set of matching suits for this gig. Some enjoyed the sight, others took to internet message boards with their righteous indignation. Had the latter known the story behind the suits, however, they might have been a little easier on their heroes.

This past Halloween, moe. was preparing to play a show in Albany, NY when bassist Rob Derhak happened upon a man he described as “ancient and looking like an old salesman with a thick toupee” standing by a rack of suits in the lobby. The old man gives Derhak an only semi-coherent hard sell on a suit, when the bassist decides to deliver a piece of good news.

“I say, ‘You know what, I’m gonna buy five suits from you,” Derhak said. “The guy was freakin’ ecstatic. He almost lost his shit. I got everyone down there to get measured and we sent them off to be tailored. Probably made the man’s month.”

Derhak said he wanted to just try and look respectable for such a milestone in the band’s history, but in another way, it’s a symbol of the chemistry that exists between Derhak, guitarists Chuck Garvey and Al Schnier, drummer Vinnie Amico and percussionist Jim Loughlin. It’s been the same five guys for the past 10 years of their existence and even longer if you discount the hiatus that Loughlin took in 1995. Derhak says that pure, dumb luck played it’s own role in their longevity.

“When I think about some of the bands that we started out with, some guys are computer programmers now,” Derhak said. “Guys that I really looked up to at one point, who I got fired up to see just them, have fallen by the wayside.”

Other acts that sprang from the same jam-friendly early ’90s scene with great promise weren’t so lucky. Bands like New York City’s God Street Wine shared similarly dedicated fans and a scene with moe., but internal and administrative failures saw their dissolution in 1999. The band moe. hasn’t been without their occasional squabble, but Derhak believes that the band’s kinship has pushed them forward.

“A lot of bands just didn’t make it due to internal issues. For us we’ve always got along like brothers; we’re very close,” Derhak said. “But at the same time, we’ve gotten in fights, though we end up being friends after no matter what.”

That kind of closeness comes through with every performance, as moe. displays the kind of accord that can only come from having played thousands of shows onstage together. It’s almost a boilerplate proclamation to claim a jam band rarely repeats phrasings from night to night during their improv, but that has held true for moe. for so long that one might trace the clich’ to the time of their origin. Twenty-minute renditions of songs like “Plane Crash,” a song that details Derhak’s morbid fear of flying, really do see moe. navigating through seemingly new interpretations each time around and this inventiveness has earned them the highest level of dedication from their fans. Derhak says that regardless of where the band plays in the country, he almost assured of seeing many of the same faces in the crowd.

“While I was playing last night [at the Las Vegas Hard Rock Caf’], I was looking at people in the crowd that I just saw playing while I was in Boston,” Derhak noted. “Then there are those who if I don’t see them at a show, you wonder what’s wrong, because you see them at every single show.”