moe. teaches Rutland how to jam.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 4/1/10.] About 10 years ago, I was a junior in high school, sitting in a van on a class trip. In the row ahead of me, my friend Chris was bobbing his head, hands drumming on the headrest, as he muttered the same lines over and over again – “Every time I think about Rob, think about Al, think about you…”

I had to ask. Chris passed his Discman – these were pre-iPod days – back for a listen. The song was called “32 Things.” Dueling guitar lines, thumping bass notes, tight harmonies, stop-on-a-dime rhythm breaks, and all the while, amazingly weird – like a cross between the Allman Brothers and Frank Zappa. This was moe.

Since then, the Buffalo-based jam/rock quintet has become one of my favorite bands. Their music – along with local heroes Phish – became the soundtrack for the remainder of my high school days.

In college, trips to moe. shows were regular occurrences – Boston, Albany, Burlington, even Las Vegas. I’ve seen these guys more than a few times, and have put some serious miles on my car in the process.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that moe. would be playing in Rutland as part of their Snoe.down Festival. Or, to put it as one of my friends so wryly observed on Facebook, “moe. is playing at the Diamond Run Mall?!” (Well, Spartan Arena, technically.)

Fast-forward to last Friday night. It’s 7:45. I hopped into my car, and headed into town. Along Route 7, I saw my first signs of activity. Young people trudged along the sidewalks en route to the arena. Huddled together for warmth, a densely packed mass of hooded sweatshirts, wool hats and patchwork corduroys. I parked my car, and walked toward the entrance, joining the growing throng of heads.

Inside, Spartan Arena was barley recognizable. A large stage dominated one end of the space. The floor was teeming with people. The opening act was Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. This is a band I have wanted to see for sometime. They’re kind of an old school R&B ensemble with Jones out in front belting out soulful, sexy tunes and working the crowd. Behind her, the Dap Kings laid down some solid rhythms and tight horn arrangements. These guys tore it up.

After Jones’ all-too-short set, it was time for moe. Over the course of the weekend, moe. played five sets, plus a Sunday acoustic set (which I unfortunately did not make). Without going into an esoteric recap of songs you’ve never heard of and other set-list minutiae, I’ll simply say that they rocked.

Friday featured two tight sets. Like most first nights of a multiple-night run – especially in a new space – you could tell the band was still feeling its way around, trying to read the crowd and the room. The crowd, for its part, was enthusiastic, but small and subdued compared to following night.

Saturday afternoon brought with it a venue change and a rocking outdoor set at Bear Mountain. The weather was perfect – bluebird skies, a warm breeze, no hats or gloves needed. From the deck, my friends and I sipped our Long Trails, enjoying both the music and the on-deck entertainment provided by a pack of overly affectionate New Jersey cougars.

Back down the hill, we regrouped for the evening. As we lingered over pizza and cocktails at my place, we once again marveled at the convenience of the weekend – no long car rides, no parking hassles, no worries about being late.

We arrived at the arena just before moe. took the stage. Another two great sets awaited us. Tonight, they were more relaxed and playful, stretching many of the songs past the point of recognition only to snap them back to the main melody or a different song entirely.

The arena was packed. The familiar smell and haze of the jamband scene stirred some nostalgic memories in a couple of my friends.

“We’re in Rutland,” one of them said as if he needed to remind us of this fact.

Indeed, inside the arena, Rutland felt strangely distant. It was easy to forget that right outside was the Diamond Run Mall and Ponderosa. While the rest of Rutland went about its normal Saturday night, we were taking part in something unique and unprecedented.

Absurd state blue laws aside (getting a beer required standing in two separate lines), the weekend went off without a hitch. Earlier this winter, in an interview with Spartan Arena Director Scott Dikeman, I asked him about the upcoming festival. At the time, he was cautiously optimistic, stating, “We’ll definitely know one way or another if something like this will work again.”

On Sunday, Dikeman was pleased.

“We couldn’t be happier with how this went,” he said, adding that the building was left in great shape, and there were no major security issues to speak of. All this bodes well for future events at the arena, according to Dikeman, including moe.’s possible return next spring.

In my little world, having one of my favorite bands play in my hometown was pretty cool. But this was also big deal for all of Rutland. (Joe Biden might even have called it a “big bleeping deal.”) Successfully pulling off an event like this means that we can do it again. And we should.

This weekend had a huge economic impact on the region. It brought thousands of people to Killington and Rutland, pouring money into local hotels, restaurants and stores. On top of that, it made Rutland relevant and kind of hip.

Granted, moe. doesn’t have much local appeal. But that’s OK. They don’t need to. They’re a band with a following. People show up wherever they play. Rutland should be looking to book more acts like this. Aside, from bringing people into the area, it also attracts a younger demographic, which is something else Rutland sorely needs – even if they are just passing through.

In the past, we’ve seen some “big name” acts visit the area. However, most can best be characterized as dinosaur bands. Steve Miller, the Beach Boys, ZZ Top – these guys have their place, but none are particularly relevant. Sure, they’re a good fit for Rutland – familiar and accessible to most people of a certain age – but these acts are leaving a younger generation of music lovers (and ticket buyers) out in the cold.

Local musician and fellow columnist George Nostrand has been barking up this tree for a while now. moe. was a great first outing. Now, let’s keep it up. The Paramount Theatre has reasserted itself as Rutland’s cultural center. Over the past couple years, the programming has been solid, and seems to only be getting better. The Derek Trucks Band was a big win in November, and I’m confident that they’ve taken note of last weekend. Hopefully, the future will bring even more relevant and current bands to the Paramount, the fairgrounds, and now, Spartan Arena.

Toward the end of moe.’s final set Saturday night, I was hit with my own little moment of nostalgia. Amidst the chaos of a fiery jam, I began to detect a familiar melody. It was vague, but it was there slowly being teased out by one of the band’s two guitarists. Soon, the drummer picked up on it, and fell in line. And there it was – “32 Things.” Suddenly, I was back in 11th grade, hearing these guys for the first time. I couldn’t have picked a better way to top off the weekend.

Outside the arena, as we made the short walk to the car, the cold blast of fresh air cleared our heads and brought us back to Rutland. It was 1 a.m. In 10 minutes, I’d be home.

Rock on, Rutland.

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