Rob Derhak's laughing. He's heard this one before.
"I think we've gotta do an acoustic album," the moe. bassist and singer says over the phone. The thing is — and this is what we're talking about, what every music writer has apparently brought up in the past six months — a full-on rootsy acoustic album was the plan when moe. went into the studio last year. They came out instead with a dynamic cache of tunes that feeds directly on the DNA of classic moe.: amalgamated electric blues and an off-kilter swerve through the annals of rock history, to put it simply.
Take the wistful ode to Derhak's daughter, "Blond Hair and Blue Eyes," which features brass fills and an edgy minor-key solo from guitarist Al Schnier. This song was originally written as a gentle acoustic number (and performed as such when the band last played Cleveland). Most of the songs on No Guts, No Glory in fact were written as acoustic songs, and many still feature aural elements of the same. You can hear traces in "Do or Die," while "The Pines and the Apples Trees" actually kept its acoustic profile fairly intact.
"It was like, 'We're gonna do an acoustic album,' and I'm trying really hard to write songs that are acoustic-sounding songs, but all of them just ended up sounding like my songs anyway. It doesn't really matter, it can go either way," Derhak says.
As it happens, about half the tunes on the new album had been appearing in set lists for several months, if not years, as in the case of "Billy Goat." That's the Derhak-penned tune that closes out No Guts, No Glory, and it's one that might have appeared on the preceding album, were it not for Derhak really honing the intent of the song and realizing sharply that it didn't fit with that certain mold back in 2012.
See, moe. is an intentional band. With a penchant for five-part improvisation on stage and a focus on the live experience, they've gotta be. It's a "work ethic" thing that forms the backbone of this band.
The legend of moe. hearkens back to the sepia-toned late 1980s in Buffalo, N.Y., where Derhak and guitarist Chuck Garvey laid the foundation.
Time went on, as time is wont to do, and moe.'s collective talents caught the 1990s jam band wave. Of particular note were the band's shows at Wetlands Preserve, a storied concert venue just outside New York City that booked jam luminaries until closing in 2001. Jimmy Herring, Chris Barron, John Medeski, Scott Murawski, titans in truth, all steeped themselves in the Wetlands' magic vibe. Moe., of course, was similarly in the thick of it all.
"That was the goal: to be able to get a gig at the Wetlands and get recognized by them," Derhak recollects. "I mean, they were pretty picky in the day about who would even get a shot. And the shot was, like, playing Monday night with a bunch of other bands."
At that time, the guys were slinging their first two independently recorded cassettes, Fatboy and Headseed; the releases show a young band frothing with ideas and, while we're talking about it, hold up remarkably well after 20 years.
"It was a great place. It was fun," Derhak goes on. "It was a place that people wanted to be, and it was a party. You wanted to be a part of that party and you didn't realize that one day it would stop and become this legendary thing."
Earlier this year, moe. headlined 25th-anniversary shows in New York, celebrating the Wetlands' legacy and a strong tributary of East Coast jam lore.
These days, the band's own legacy is firmly intact. The 15th moe.down, the band's annual festival in upstate New York, once again delivered stratospheric improvisation back on Labor Day weekend. Much like the Wetlands days, though with moe. themselves now at the helm, the intent of it all revolves around community and family. Moe.down featured bands from across upstate New York and New England, all feeding off the same central nerve.
The blue-collar grit that informed Derhak and Garvey, et al., in the early days of moe. translates presently to the same sort of "you gotta earn it" mentality that strikes through music scenes in Cleveland, Rochester, Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt locales. The dedication seen in younger bands like Aqueous, another Buffalo-bred upstart that played at moe.down, parallels the early days of moe.
"Culturally, where we grew up you kinda learned to pick yourself up whenever you got knocked down," Derhak says. "It's probably not unlike what it's like in Cleveland. There are a lot of good people who are used to working hard and also enjoying themselves pretty hard when they get the chance. I think the work ethic is evident in a jam band. Not only do you have to learn to play really well, but you also have to learn to do a considerable amount of self-promotion and touring to get noticed. There aren't record companies, and there's no one doing it for you, when you're a jam band." Hence the community-building. Hence Wetlands. Hence 15 iterations of moe.down, for heaven's sake.
And building out the element of family even further, all the children of moe.'s members have come to play major roles in the band's activities (see the music video for "Blond Hair and Blues Eyes," most notably). Moe.down was no exception. "We turn it into something pretty special. All of our kids and their friends go," Derhak says. "Just for us personally it's a great time. Then there's the whole other aspect, the main aspect, of the bands and the music."
Ah, the music. Indeed, a cursory survey of conversations with moe.rons and casual jam fans alike reveals that the band is hitting something of a peak these days. Some laud No Guts, No Glory as the sort of in-studio achievement not seen since Wormwood was cut a decade ago. More merely point to the live show, which is just on fire lately. For Derhak & Co., though, there's not much more to it than playing music with good friends, with family.
8 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 21, Kent Stage,
175 East Main St., Kent, 330-677-5005. Tickets: $34. thekentstage.com.