"It used to be that we'd embrace it, because at the time there was no real way to say what we were doing," drummer Vinnie Amico says. "When we started doing this, they didn't have a jam-band scene. There was Phish, the Dead and, I guess, Widespread Panic. We didn't really even have an identity. When people would say, 'What are you?' we'd say, 'Uh ... we're a rock band that likes to play for a long time.'"
Regardless of the benefits or drawbacks of jam-band classification, more than just a few other bands have started to call this category home. Jambase.com -- an online repository of jam-band-related news and tour information -- lists anywhere from 50 to 150 acts performing live on any given night, a fact that Amico says is hard to ignore.
"About 80 percent of live music is jam bands," he claims. "Look at your club schedules or your weekly free paper or whatever. Every night there's a freaking jam band playing somewhere."
Yet given the variety of acts that find themselves grouped under that umbrella, from the bluegrass-leaning String Cheese Incident to the jazz-funk-flavored Soulive, it's difficult to provide a consistent picture of the music that comes out of the scene. Even the most fundamental assumption associated with the scene -- that there's a heavy amount of improvisation involved -- is occasionally disproved.
"We take chances every second on the stage," Amico says, vouching for moe.'s authenticity. "We're letting everything fly by the seat of our pants. That's what it's supposed to be about. There are a lot of bands out there that rehearse everything they do but are still considered a jam band because a lot of hippies like their music and they tour around constantly."
Considering the ultraloyal nature of the genre's fanbase, one that's willing to tolerate even such prerehearsed episodes of pseudospontaneity, its passion for collecting and trading fan-taped concert recordings becomes self-apparent. It's a phenomenon unique to the jam world; bands actively encourage file swapping of live shows, the new millennium's equivalent of the early person-to-person tape-trading practices of fanatical Deadheads. While the rest of the music industry views the Internet as a threat, jam bands rely on it as an indispensable component of self-promotion. Yet for acts such as moe. it can also be a double-edged sword, making the band feel like it's competing with itself when the time comes to release a studio album.
"You'd think no, but with all the Web sites out there and all the people who are obsessed with reading what we do under a microscope, it does get strange," Amico admits. "You get all the skeptics and all the true fans that say, 'I don't like this album as much as seeing them live.' It's different if they accept that it's a studio album, accept that it's supposed to be done a little differently. If people can put all that other stuff aside and actually realize that is what we're doing, then they can go in with a little more of an open mind and enjoy it."
Unlike many of their fellow jam rockers, moe.'s members seem to have found a successful approach to bringing their formidable live act into the studio. Dither garnered the group a four-star review in Rolling Stone in 2002. Released this past week, the band's follow-up, Wormwood, comes a step closer to adding its live energy to the recording process. The group improvised its song segues -- a familiar stage-show element -- in the studio and laid the album's very sonic foundations while on the road.
"Most bands track the drums and then lay everything over that," Amico explains. "Instead, we went out live, played all these shows, and we tracked the drums and anything else that was good. We did everything else over the top, which was just like making an album. It just happens to be that we did a lot live, so there's a lot more live energy and that live length to it."
Practical considerations also came into play. Some mainstream bands can enjoy the luxury of lucrative label backing for studio projects, but jam acts, for the most part, are about as indie as they come. In the studio, Amico explains, minutes mean money.
"We don't have the time to go into the studio, write a whole bunch of material for an album, then produce it and put it out," Amico says. "Our whole preproduction process is being out on the road, which is completely different than how the record industry does it."
Similarly, the band's slimmed-down recording approach represents a drastic departure from its live shows.
"If we had a guitar solo that was going a little long and wasn't really going long for any reason, we cut out a few minutes of it and were able to still have all the energy we needed and wanted for the song," Amico says. "We were able to trim the fat."
Though the scale takes an obvious tip toward moe. as a live act, Amico and company aspire to make their studio efforts something more enduring than just a canned reflection of their concerts.
"We are a good live band -- that's what our fans say," Amico says. "Our live albums sell better than our studio albums. The genre of music we play, the fact that kids follow us all over the country to see us play, we're a good live band. We have a lot of energy, and we'll rock your socks off. We love the fact that the crowd gets off on it."
Amico considers his words for a few seconds, then continues.
"Musically, we'd love to be a great studio band. We'd love to put out a White Album or a Sgt. Pepper's or an OK Computer, one of those killer studio albums -- Pink Floyd's Dark Side -- and have it be our masterpiece. We want to have the five stars in Rolling Stone and have everyone say, 'Holy shit, what a great album,' and be one of your desert-island discs. Whether or not we're going to get there, who knows, but we're going to strive for it."