Words by: Bill Clifford | Images by: Rob Chapman
moe.down 9 :: 08.29.08 – 08.31.08 :: Snow Ridge Ski Area :: Turin, NY
It's an old adage really, but it works nonetheless: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Nine years running and as fervent as ever, moe.down lured over 10,000 fans from around the country to beautiful Upstate New York over Labor Day weekend. As if on a schedule of rain every other year at the event, Hurricane Faye worked its way up the coast on Friday, yet dissipated by the time it reached New York State. A gray fog hung over the mountain on Friday and dropped a sprinkle of rain that glazed the grounds. Otherwise, we were graced with glorious sunshine.
Since its inception in 2000, moe.down has been held at the lovely and inviting Snow Ridge Ski Area, just east of Lake Ontario and situated in the heart of the scenic Adirondack Mountains. The festival has never promised huge carnival rides or enchanted forests, but the lifts have always been open to bikers and hikers, and camping remains at the bottom of the mountain in the grassy, open parking lots and under the shaded lift lines for the few that arrive early enough to claim the prime spots.
Year after year, anchored by jam band mainstay moe., this festival continues to book renowned acts as well as newcomers to the scene. And year after year, like a mighty black bear returning to favored hunting grounds, we moe.rons arrive with kind smiles for one another, letting loose a resounding yowl, pleased to renew many old acquaintances yet welcoming to new ones, too.
As a festival veteran who's traveled from coast to coast, I've personally known the communal spirit such an event holds, but there is something stronger at work here. It's the draw of the majestic location, the inspiring and moving improvisational live music, the graciousness of the bands happy to be included (many of whom share the stage with moe.) and even just the free spirited vibe hanging about the mountain. While many such attributes are common at any number of festivals, there is an unspoken bond amongst everyone at moe.down. No doubt about it, over Labor Day weekend, we are all Fam-moe-ly.
The festival headliners got started late Friday night with a by the book "Spaz Medicine," which came to a close with a crashing cacophony of drums and screaming guitars and vocals. "Blue Jeans Pizza" was a fun follow-up that featured a drum jam, with all five members picking up percussion instruments mid-song, and the crowd clapping along in unison. The band was joined by banjo phenomenon Bela Fleck going into "Shoot First," bringing added color and texture to the spooky number. The set closed with long, improvisational forays into ambient space rock on "The Road," which featured surprising teases of the Phish classic "Bathtub Gin" and moe.'s own "Rebubula," both high-energy rave ups that ignited and launched the glow sticks.
|Bela Fleck with moe. :: moe.down 9|
On Saturday, the band performed its first set early in the afternoon. moe. revisited their Upstate New York roots with a funky take on "Bring It Back Home" that featured three-part harmonies between guitarists Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey and bassist Rob Derhak. But, the afternoon fun really started with "Bear Song," as volunteers busted out inflatable black bears in white t-shirts with the festival's beer sponsor emblazoned on them in front of the stage. You could see the merriment on the band member's faces as they played looking out at approximately 15 to 30 bears bouncing and floating above the heads of the crowd in the afternoon sun. Another highlight occurred when the band was joined by a group of kids dressed in superhero costumes as they performed "Captain America." The kids included several of the band members' offspring, such as an animated Zach Derhak playing air bass and Schnier's son Ben singing a chorus - moe.down has always been a family oriented festival.
moe.'s second set on Saturday featured guest vocalist Nadine LaFond from Swampadelica, who had performed under the tent earlier. LaFond joined the band on the title track to its latest album, Sticks and Stones, and "Deep This Time." With a rich, sensual, gospel rooted voice, LaFond brought a soulful feel to the much of the set. "Bullet" was slowed down but thickened with Memphis funk and featuring "Voodoo Chile" teases from Garvey. That segued seamlessly into "Bring You Down" to close the set with Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band on mandolin. Austin, a masterful young musician, found his groove mid-song and plucked fast and hard on his instrument to the delight of the crowd.
|moe. & kids :: moe.down 9|
moe. closed Saturday with a late night set which, as it always does, lit the mountain on fire. There really is no better way to begin a final set of the day than with a song about a pig named "Buster" that dreamed it could fly. The crowd went hog wild with the glow sticks mid-song, and the night sky was alive with color. LaFond rejoined the band on a bluesy, sizzling "Voodoo Chile." In a move that has become a regular occurrence at moe.down, the band handed off its instruments to Fishbone, who had played earlier in the day. The switch was pulled off without missing a beat and while a fun experiment, one got the sense that Fishbone overstayed their welcome with a jam that lasted over 35 minutes. moe. closed with the rollicking sing-a-long "Spine Of A Dog."
moe.'s final two sets of moe.down 9 on Sunday – and final sets for the near future, save for an appearance at Farm Aid in September – were unforgettable. The band's first set at 8 p.m. began with a high-spirited "Tail Spin," which mellowed seamlessly into live staple "Timmy Tucker," bringing the glow sticks and beach balls out. It was this that ignited the crowd into a rambunctious frenzy, with fans twirling, spinning and bouncing off one another like the beach balls above our heads. Schnier and Garvey took turns with soaring solos, while multi-instrumentalist Jim Loughlin plunked away on the MalletKAT and drummer Vinnie Amico and Derhak held the low end together.
An interesting experiment took place as Cornmeal - the entire band - was invited to the stage for a run through "MacIntyre Range," recorded as a four-minute interlude on moe.'s '07 release, The Conch, but performed here as a thirteen-minute instrumental ballad. Allie Kral added sorrowful, elegant fiddle, which built to an emotional soaring peak by song's end. If "MacIntyre Range" was a bit of an emotional lull, closer "32 Things," also with Cornmeal, brought the energy right back up with Kral and Schnier trading licks. If fans weren't aware of the young fiddle player before, they certainly couldn't ignore her after this set.
|moe. :: moe.down 9|
moe.'s final set of 2008 was certainly one to remember. "Happy Hour Hero" featured Shannon Lynch of the band Lynch on saxophone, an interesting addition to the song. Some of the fun at a moe. performance is found in the between-song jams, where one gets lost wondering what's next, till suddenly a cheer goes up like a whiff of pot smoke as the familiar strains of "Recreational Chemistry" take hold. Long a moe. concert staple, this epic 25-minute jam featured the dueling guitars of Garvey and Schnier. It was a highlight of the entire weekend, as was "Plane Crash," which featured some caterwauling guitars and a mid song drum jam. The set closed with a tightly coiled "Wind It Up" with Garvey's vocal especially gritty after the long weekend.
Friday night one of New York states hottest prospects, U-Melt, absolutely melted the tent. At 5 p.m., as festival fans were settling into campsites, the band got the music started under the Saranac Tent with a mellow instrumental jam. U-Melt mixed electric jam rock ("Question Matters") with touches of hair metal ("Late July's Lament"). At the end of its second set, as the crowd under the tent was quite full, the band paid tribute to Michael Jackson's 50th birthday with a medley that fired up the fans. "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" sent the crowd dancing and "Billie Jean" and "Wanna Be Starting Something" had fans singing along. But, it was the set closer "Thriller" that torched the tent and raised the bar high for the rest of the acts through the weekend. U-Melt closed the tent prior to moe.'s main stage set with a high-energy, 45-minute, three song instrumental jam.
The act that brought many to the main stage early on Friday was The Sparrow Quartet featuring Bela Fleck and led by Abigail Washburn of the all-female string band Uncle Earl, who played moe.down 8. The Quartet also includes Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee, and together they're hard to get a handle on. On the one hand, the band played traditional bluegrass; while on the other Washburn sang some tunes in Chinese. It was a mix that worked surprisingly well, as a receptive crowd gathered and appreciated what was going on, though many were not familiar with the music. Washburn sang with a dulcet twang that fit well with the string instruments.
We woke up Saturday morning to dew on the ground, but just as the Benevento/Russo Duo took the main stage, the sun began to burn through the haze. Fittingly, "Sunnys" and "Best Reason To Buy The Sun" were the first two songs they performed. "Let's keep the sun out," yelled an enthusiastic Marco Benevento. The Duo's reputation preceded them as a sizeable crowd had gathered in front of the main stage. "Becky" was an abstract, free jazz jam, with sampled sounds and looped beats merged with Benevento's Wurlitzer and Joe Russo's pounding rhythms. The chemistry between the two was obvious as they could be seen throwing glances and laughs each other's way while playing. At one point, Benevento jumped up from behind his keyboards, lifted a top panel from one of his instruments and began twisting at the innards, attempting to "fix" a technical difficulty while Russo kept a beat going. The Duo managed to pull quite an array of sounds for just two musicians.
|Benevento/Russo Duo :: moe.down 9|
Besides moe., many fans were very happy to have Yonder Mountain String Band welcomed back to the fest, and the band certainly did not disappoint. Taking the stage at dusk just prior to moe.'s early evening set on Saturday, the Colorado jamgrass band drew the largest crowd of the weekend other than moe. "No Expectations" began with Jeff Austin's mellow strumming on mandolin and graceful singing. It built slowly to some high and mighty fast picking from all four members and then quickly mellowed again as it ended. "If Loving You Is Killing Me" is a traditional bluegrass number, played and plucked fast, featuring Dave Johnston on banjo. Adam Aijala's vocals are the most pristine of the band, as proven on "Night Out," which also featured strong picking by Austin and Johnston. YMSB brought a little bit of the Rocky Mountains with them to The Adirondacks on the 11-minute, dark and stormy jam "Snow On The Pines." Rooted deep in the bluegrass tradition, this quartet brings a vibrant energy to the scene.
Saturday night, the beer tent belonged to one of New England's hottest rock acts, as The Brew, served up their blend of classic rock for three sets. And with festival fans already well serviced, their rock went down cold and thick like a finely fermented ale. "Hunters Moon" got things started, as fans were settling into what these cats had on tap. Chris Plante's serene vocals and vivid piano led the way while guitarist David Drouin had chops as solid as any young guitar slinger on the scene. Late in their second set with many festival fans drinking it down, the band added its secret ingredient – a wailing cover of Boston's "Foreplay/Long Time" with Drouin an absolute dead ringer vocally for the late Brad Delp - drawing one of the largest cheers of the weekend. The band closed its final set with "Chance Reaching," with dueling guitar and piano and sinewy singing from Plante. Over three rocking sets, The Brew fermented well and turned on a bevy of new fans at moe.down.
|Jeff Austin - YMSB :: moe.down 9|
Chicago based Cornmeal opened the main stage on Sunday with a hearty dose of its stompgrass. Like YMSB, their roots are in traditional bluegrass yet their music is infused with a vibrant, youthful energy with rock elements. Kris Nowak takes the lead on vocals and acoustic guitar, while Allie Kral's amazing fiddle playing adds a unique and eclectic element to the band's sound. They tore it up on the nearly 16-minute opener, "River Gap," as fans strolled down to the front of the main stage. Without a cloud in the sky, the audience kicked up dust to "Johnny Put Down Your Gun" and the traditional "Working On A Building." Kral matched Nowak on vocals on the stark "The Road," where her fiddle conveyed a haunting ache. The fast-tempo of closer "Hillbilly Ride" got feet shuffling and dirt flying again.
The sound of The Bridge is a difficult one to pin down to any one genre. With elements of classic rock, bluegrass, jazz and even hip-hop, there quite an amalgamation of styles. Up front on guitar and vocals, Chris Jacobs sang with the soul and tone of Lowell George, while Patrick Rainey funked things up on the sax on songs such as "Shake Em Down" and the bluesy "Poison Wine." Kenny Liner played the electric mandolin, but took to the mic several times to add beat box, such as on "Drop The Beat," where sax joined with thick bass for a dance song that was hard to resist. New York native and pianist Marc Brown held his own musically on Dr. John's "Qualified," and Liner and Rainey got funky on "Brother Don't."
I wasn't quite sure what to expect of Levon Helm's set at moe.down. I had heard his Grammy winning Dirt Farmer, which I wasn't particularly impressed with and also read about his Midnight Rambles performances at his home in nearby Woodstock. Consider me a convert. Only one word comes close to describing his set: astounding. With thirteen amazing musicians joining him onstage, how could it be anything else? Helm and the Midnight Ramblers stole the show at moe.down this year. Helm on drums was flanked by a five-piece horn section, a keyboard player, two guitarists, a stand-up bassist and a percussionist as well as two female vocalists including Helm's daughter, Amy. The ensemble ran through a few songs from Dirt Farmer, and Helm even stepped away from the kit to play up front for a few acoustic songs including "Long Black Veil." Of course, he included several chestnuts from his days with The Band, in particular, "Ophelia" and "The Shape I'm In," with Helm on vocals and the unreal horn section behind him. What's more, the irony of watching the youthful audience singing along as the elder Helm sang was a testament to his place in rock music's elite.
|Levon Helm :: moe.down 9|
moe.down 9 makes it five straight for this critic and along with many fellow moe.rons, I am sure to be back for year ten. moe. and its management team did something exceptionally well when they began promoting this festival in 2000, and they've never tried to capitalize on their success. Rather, they've kept on keeping on, and have succeeded at developing a fine, well put together festival that continues to grow in small increments while maintaining its status quo as the place to be over Labor Day weekend for fam-moe-lies and fans alike.
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