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Sticks and Stones’ leaves fans wanting moe.

Bob Costa | Tuesday, January 29, 2008

For music groups lumped into the “jam-band” category, studio albums are usually an afterthought. It is the live show that is crucial for groups such as Dave Matthews Band and the Grateful Dead. A band is judged in the jam-band community not by how well it mixes its tracks in some cramped New York City studio, but how innovative it can be on stage with guitar solos and melodic syncopation, night after night.

For moe. – Yes, that’s the correct spelling for the uninitiated – being a great jam-band comes easy. Since forming at the University of Buffalo in 1990, moe. has released live and studio albums on its own independent label. The band has developed a national fan base and has become a favorite at music festivals like Bonnaroo and Vegoose.

Last week, moe. released “Sticks and Stones,” a new studio album that features eight songs from the band that have never been performed live and two previously unreleased songs. On its previous albums, moe. released compilation albums of live material and fan-favorites played on the road. Albums such as “The Conch” (2007) and “Wormwood” (2003) were stellar examples of the group’s instrumental prowess, but it is “Sticks and Stones” that finally shows the band’s ability to make magic happen outside of a live stage.

For “Sticks and Stones,” moe. recruited producer John Siket, who is well-known for his skilled production work on previous albums by Phish, Dave Matthews Band and Dispatch. Siket also worked with moe. on its previous records, including stand-out album “Dither,” released in 2001. “Sticks and Stones” was recorded in three-weeks in an old New England church house. The effect of the setting is heard on the first track, “Cathedral,” which has epic guitar melodies interspersed with a dynamic rhythm section.

Various overdubs and final mixing were done at the world-renowned Allaire Studios in the Catskill Mountains. Mastering was handled by the legendary, Grammy Award-winning Bob Ludwig (Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Beck, Pearl Jam). This is an album where the production has enhanced the band’s music – giving resonance to tunes such as “Queen of Everything” that capture moe. at its best, evoking both the Dead and classic rock bands from the 1970s.

“The material differs quite a bit from ‘The Conch’ and ‘Wormwood,'” guitarist Al Schnier told the press in November during production. “[Those albums] which were largely cultivated from songs nurtured through live improvisation.” Schnier added that “the songs that comprise “Sticks and Stones” are much straighter, like many classic songs in the moe. canon, and have a roots rock quality to them, as opposed to the more progressive rock element of “The Conch.”

The group does not let itself get carried away on “Sticks and Stones,” clocking the album at under 40 minutes and sticking to concise songwriting over the ambiguous but colorful live music for which they are known. Undoubtedly, the music from this album will be fleshed out in a live setting this spring and summer to the delight of the band’s enthusiastic fans. But for first-time listeners to this New England jam-band, “Sticks and Stones” is a tasty appetizer.

Although the band has been around for close to eighteen years, its sound is truly coming into its own with “Sticks and Stones,” with the band’s new songs having an accessibility and maturity that hasn’t revealed itself on every past moe. album. “All Roads Lead To Home” is a wonderful pop-rock track that showcases moe.’s songwriting ability. Another great tune is “Raise A Glass,” which shows the band loves to have some fun, blending Celtic grooves with good-natured vocal harmonies.

The band is an independent band that releases its material on its own label, shunning any guidance from a major-label. Still, “Sticks and Stone” has a professional gloss that actually benefits the at times disorganized jam-band sound of moe.

Over the years the band has developed a reputation as down-to-earth and eager to collaborate within the jam-band community. Guest musicians on “Sticks and Stones” include Cornmeal’s Allie Kral playing violin and viola on “Cathedral,” “Conviction Song,” “September” and “Raise A Glass”. Emilio China also played violin on “Cathedral.” Notre Dame alumni and fellow-jam band Umphrey’s McGee added backing vocals to “Raise A Glass,” and Nadine Lafond lends additional vocals on several songs.