Concert Review: moe. is Back!

By Paul Robicheau

There was no doubt guitarist Chuck Garvey was already up to the task, sealing the grit and heart necessary to return moe. to jam-bound heights.

Chuck Garvey and Rob Derhak of moe. in Lowell. Photo: Paul Robicheau

“We’re back in Lowell,” moe. bassist/singer Rob Derhak mused to the crowd of about 1,200 fans who filled out the tree-flanked terraces of Boarding House Park with chairs and blankets on Friday. He might have easily left it at “We’re back!”

When moe. last played the Lowell Summer Music Series 12 years ago, the dual-guitar group remained one of the leading post-Phish bands on the jam circuit. But if current newcomers Goose and Billy Strings broke out of the pandemic as if fired by slingshot, the ’90s-born moe. faced much bigger concerns than a nasty virus that challenged touring status.

Chuck Garvey of moe. in Lowell. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Only a few years after successful cancer treatments for Derhak placed moe. on hiatus for several months, co-founding guitarist Chuck Garvey suffered a debilitating stroke in late 2021, affecting his ability to speak and play guitar. It took a year-plus of rehab before Garvey was able to play a chunk of the group’s last New Year’s Eve show and finally go back on tour in late January.

Not that moe. ground to a halt during Garvey’s recovery, hitting the road last year with friends Suke Cerulo on guitar and Nate Wilson on keyboards. Frequent past guest Wilson became a regular band member even upon Garvey’s return, lending versatility on both keys and vocals. Therefore, moe. took the stage at Boarding House Park as a six-piece ensemble ready to kick off a seven-week tour.

Any thoughts that Garvey would still be developing his guitar chops were firmly dashed in Lowell by his bucking solo in opener “Billy Goat” and flashy slide in “White Lightning Turpentine.” In fact, his tasteful fretwork served as primary highlights of an opening stretch where the band seemed kind of flat overall.

Perhaps the sound mix had something to do with the lack of dynamics. When the group launched a tepid cover of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” sung by Wilson, the PA system cut out. Soundboard staff scrambled to find the issue and, lo and behold, when the full mix returned a few minutes later, it sounded better than before — just in time for Wilson to dive into a Moog synth solo with the feel of the ’70s.

Al Schnier of moe. in Lowell. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Sliding bass chords signaled “Blue Jeans Pizza,” which made an effective impression through Garvey’s Steely Dan-ish lead, Derhak’s falsetto vocal, and solo space for Jim Loughlin on bongos and Wilson on organ — despite a surprising flub from drummer Vinnie Amico as the band collectively lost its rhythm for a moment. Again, Garvey stood out in his solo turn with ringing trills and string bends. And while not a particularly inspired choice to close the 70-minute first set, “Mexico” locked into a breezy, chiming groove  over Amico’s crisp backbeat, capped by a wave of ripping tendrils from second guitarist Al Schnier.

Schnier took command early in the second set, including lead vocals on “She” and a jazzy guitar break on 2020’s new-ish “Jazz Cigarette,” complementing Derhak’s spidery bass and Loughlin’s percolating vibes melody. But a true showpiece came in “Waiting for the Punchline,” starting with its rock riff extended and rounding into double-time bluegrass shuffles that had fans bouncing along on the grass.

With nodding eye contact, Garvey and Schnier seemed oddly deliberate as they lapsed into skeletal guitar tag that detoured into a spot-on cover of “Can’t Find My Way Home” (in the wheelhouse of singer Wilson, who traverses Steve Winwood terrain in his band Ghosts of Jupiter). Then the guitar harmonies wound together, backlights panned into the trees, and warhorse “Rebubula” rose like a triumphant phoenix. That 20-minute set closer found Garvey pushing his volume pedal to the metal, topping a ferocious solo by sliding his guitar neck across the mic stand.

“This city is gritty, but it’s got heart,” Schnier quipped during his usual pre-encore “Al-nouncements” of notes from fans, including two celebrating their 200th show. And moe. stomped Lowell with a fun finale of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla,” replete with more cowbell and spacey scatting through an overly long middle breakdown.

If stretches of the 160-minute show might have been paced to give Garvey extra space to warm up his fingers, there was no doubt he was already up to the task, sealing the grit and heart necessary to return moe. to jam-bound heights.

Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.

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