An acoustic moe. show at the Belly Up Tavern possesses a certain double dose of rarities. On the one hand, just to have moe. play there is downright unique in its own right. Their first visit here wasn’t until about seven years into their career in 1997, but they haven’t returned since 2003, opting instead for downtown San Diego’s bigger venues. On the other hand, an acoustic moe. show anywhere has all the hallmarks of a special event. (OK, so the guitarists played an acoustic show as DiSGRACe in Nashville in November 2010, but why quibble?) Put the two together and the local fans, which either Chuck Garvey or bassist Rob Derhak (can’t remember which) dubbed, “the good people of Solana Beach,” were in for a real treat as the band notably thanked us for giving them this opportunity to shake things up a bit. The scrappy beachside Quonset hut’s homey environs is a warm, inviting and intimate setting for any band, regardless of its sonic/aural inclinations. (Indeed, standing near the stage pre-show I actually had the honor of quickly “helping” guitarist Al Schnier negotiate his way around the flimsy velvet rope (a hook and chain, really) that separated the band’s green room from the hoi polloi. That doesn’t happen at your usual garden variety House of Blues, that’s for sure!) Hell, even the band’s guitar technician weighed-in on this singular occasion as he implored the near-capacity crowd to not miss their chance to buy a show download, which he himself called “rare” (or was it “special”?) While it may have been merely a commercial plug to move product, it felt sincere; as if we were watching something significant. So, whether the band liked it or not, the crowd was primed and pumped to be witnesses to, and participants in, such a seemingly scarce acoustic sight, indeed.
On this, the last leg of their Winter Tour, the band took to the stage on this damp, cold Sunday night at a respectable 8:45. Dressed in jeans and t-shirts and plopping-down on bar stools out front, the guitarists couldn’t look more laid back, happy and good-natured. Chuck sat stage right, Rob held court at center, and Al sat stage left, smack-dab in front of me. Percussionist Jim Loughlin and drummer Vinnie Amico were wedged-in just behind. The interplay between the guitarists was heartfelt and it seemed obvious that they enjoyed this departure from their usual louder electric-fueled gigs. Al even quipped that they truly welcomed the chance to do something…or “anything different” from the norm. (The percussionists, though, seemed oddly detached from it all, actually.) For the most part, the show was as warm and relaxed as the setting, with an ample sprinkling of covers among some of the band’s own familiar tunes.
A more learned expert dissection of the actual song-playing and musicianship may be best left to some of the more, ahem, “moe.ronic” in the audience. But suffice it to say, this show had its memorable moments, no thanks to a fairly loud and chatty crowd that, if it weren’t for the fact I was right up front, would’ve really been a pain. The first tune, “Waiting for the Punchline,” allowed the band to get a feel for their new acoustic digs. Its tempo was slowed-down and possessed some nice moments to groove. “Nebraska” was a fun sing-along opportunity, followed by a nifty “Spine of a Dog.” To hear the moe.rons tell it, the next tune, “Not Coming Down,” had as much power as its electric brethren and segued seamlessly into “Wormwood,” finally culminating in “Okayalright,” another tune that had the crowd belting-out the words in blissful unison. A classic version of “Dead Flowers” was played for evidently only the second time since 1999. And “Time Ed,” also one of the only times performed acoustic, stretched out to about 15 minutes and gave Loughlin numerous opportunities to solo on his vibraphone(s). The sound, at least upfront, was crystal clear. One would be hard-pressed to dub this an acoustic show because it had all the verve and punch of an electric gig.
After about a forty minute intermission, the boys retook the stage around 10:30. Many of us were licking our chops at the mandolin sitting by Al’s feet. But it wasn’t to be…yet, as the band lit into “Wicked Awesome, “Deep This Time,” and a restrained “Tambourine,” featuring Loughlin strumming-away on washboard. About a ten minute “Haze” followed and seemed to work exceedingly well in this acoustic format. Finally, Al grabbed that mandolin and the band cut into what I thought was the night’s highlight for me: a threesome of fun, good ol’ fashioned bluegrass-tinged tunes consisting of “Shake Your Hips,” “Salt Creek,” and a standout, memorable “Blue-Eyed Son,” which Al mentioned probably hadn’t been played since his now-12-year-old son was only two. The guitar and mandolin pickin’ was done at breakneck dexterous speed and really gave Chuck and Al each a sweaty finger workout (no crass jokes, please). The last half-hour or so was pretty much reserved for a jammed-out, set-closing “The Road” into “Meat,” which gave all band members solo interludes. Just after midnight, the band returned for a double encore with “Wildflowers” and the rollicking English-style drinking song “Raise Your Glass.”
After a few days off, the band, while saying goodbye to California, will finish the American portion of their tour in Utah and Colorado before heading off to Japan. Because of this crazy touring schedule, it seemed as if the band truly relished this unique break from electric-convention to reinvent themselves as, um, acoustic masters – even if only for a night.
I: Waiting For The Punchline, Nebraska, Spine Of A Dog, Daydreaming, Not Coming Down > Wormwood > Okayalright, Dead Flowers, Time Ed
II: Wicked Awesome, Deep This Time, Tambourine, Haze, Shake Your Hips, Salt Creek, Blue Eyed Son, The Road > meat.