The jam band moe. is playing two meaningful comeback shows this weekend at the Music Box at The Borgata in Atlantic City. The last time they played there was February 2020, just before the pandemic shut down the venue for months.
For a group like moe., which thrives on epic tours (followed by devoted fans known as moe.rons), getting back on the road was a priority, so they played drive-in shows during the COVID summer of 2020. But the pandemic was just a speed bump compared with the challenge of returning to the stage after singer-guitarist Chuck Garvey suffered a stroke in November 2021.
They canceled all their gigs in the wake of Garvey’s illness except for two shows at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, that were repurposed as fundraisers, with guests including Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule and Scott Metzger of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.
Garvey’s stroke impacted the right side of his body and left him unable to speak in full sentences. His wife Amy gave him a small guitar for inspiration during rehab but he couldn’t do much beyond basic strumming.
Given the severity of his symptoms, it was a surprise when he joined the band onstage in December, for a New Year’s Eve show, and resumed touring, thanks to intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy. He was limited to playing guitar and singing backing vocals until late June, when he sang lead for the first time since his stroke, performing a moody tune called “Shoot First” during a late-night set at the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California (see video below).
Garvey isn’t the first member of moe. to suffer a life-threatening illness. In 2017, bassist Rob Derhak was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, but he was declared disease-free after just a few months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Straight outta Buffalo, moe. is famed for their whimsical showmanship, improvisational wizardry and self-deprecating humor. The band, which dates back to 1989, has 12 studio albums, including faves such as No Doy, Dither and Wormwood. Their name is inspired by the song “Five Guys Named Moe,” by Louis Jordan. The current lineup is Garvey, Derhak, Al Schnier (guitar, vocals), Jim Loughlin (percussion, vibes), Vinnie Amico (drums) and new member Nate Wilson (keyboards).
They are festival pioneers who hosted their first moe.down camping weekend in 2000, with co-headliners including Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, Ani DiFranco and the Ominous Seapods. Moe.down made its debut a few months after the inaugural Coachella fest and it predated Bonnaroo by two years. The event has been on hiatus since the pandemic.
After they are done touring for the year, the band plans to begin work on a followup to their 2020 album This is Not, We Are. It may feature songs written by Garvey during his recovery.
I spoke with Garvey via phone about the Borgata shows, his recovery and the transcendent power of a bust-out song.
Q: It’s interesting that you’re coming back to the Borgata three years after you played there just before the pandemic.
A: It seems like it’s been a lifetime ago since we were there. It’s been amazing to see all these places that I’ve been before and just to be able to be playing again.
Q: I read that the last time moe. was at the Borgata, the band played a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” (see video below)
A: Al is a big Bruce fan. The whole band loves Bruce.
Q: Any surprise covers in A.C. that you’re planning?
A: We’ve been working on different covers as we go and we have started two new songs in the past two months. Doing that and doing covers has been really satisfying. So you never know. I can’t say what’s going to happen.
Q: So you can’t say whether or not you’ll be playing “Candy’s Room” by Springsteen?
A: I would never say. No comment.
Q: It’s just remarkable that you’re touring less than two years after suffering a stroke. How did you make the decision that you were ready to get back onstage?
A: We had a plan where I was going to join the band later in the year but I said I would rather just start working right now. I didn’t wanna wait anymore. I didn’t know how well it would turn out but I just wanted to be playing with my friends instead of worrying about it for months and months.
Q: How much time did you spend rehearsing for that Philly NYE show?
A: It was really just a couple of days. It was just to get started and make sure that I would fit in and actually contribute. I have been working on my own but playing with the whole band is a completely different thing. The first day, we started to lock into each other and it felt good. I wasn’t 100 percent yet and I am still not 100 percent, but you could see that chemistry was still there.
Q: So you still had that kind of instant mind meld when you got together in a room and played?
A: Yes. It was weird because the band said while I was not there, it was almost like they had a phantom limb. I was like an arm that was missed. When we started to play, it filled in that void. We’ve been playing together for so long that we could just get together and do that thing again where we can improvise on the spot. I’m really lucky that I can do that.
Q: I saw a video of you singing lead on “Shoot First” at High Sierra in early July. Did you just have a sense you were ready for lead vocals again?
A: I used the lyrics to a couple of my own songs as content to work on in my recovery. When I started my speech therapy, I would recite the lyrics almost like giving a speech. It really helped. For you and I to speak right now is pretty amazing. I got to this point where I could speak, but my singing was completely different. It’s a different way of connecting words and melody. That was another step, where I had to work hard on singing. I knew the words but I had to relearn how to sing the song. I’ve been working on that slowly over six months and I’m getting better at that process. At this point, I still can’t sing and play guitar together but at least I can sing the song. It’s another step in getting back to how I used to be before.
Q: In a video, after you finished singing “Shoot First,” you said it was a bust-out (jam band vernacular for a song that is rare on setlists).
A: Yeah. (laughs) That’s not something I would ever normally say. It’s just hardcore fans who are into that kind of stuff but it was funny for me to say that.
Q: Playing Philly on New Year’s Eve, what was it like being back onstage? Was it just like picking up where you left off?
A: It was not. I’ve been living at home and working on things in a quiet, measured way, and then showing up and trying to play with the band and there’s 3,000 people there … it was really shocking and it took a while for me to find a way to feel at ease again. After a while of being on the road I am feeling more at ease, but that first night was really hard.
Q: Do you still maybe experience a bit of sensory overload?
A: I’m pretty good onstage because it’s just me and my friends, and I feel okay with that. It can be too much when I’m in a really crowded room or with people who I don’t know well. It’s a thing I need to work on.
Q: You’ve had a really challenging few years, to say the least, between Rob’s cancer, the pandemic, the stroke. What do you think has been key to enduring through all of this and having this longevity, to be going on for more than 30 years with these guys?
A: It’s really a testament to my wife, my family, my friends, the band and our friends. We have friends all over the country who support and care about us. There’s a big community that will endure through all of these things.
Q: I read that your wife bought you a guitar to play during your recovery. Was there a bit of muscle memory with the music even if the lyrics didn’t come right away?
A: My musician’s brain was intact. I could hear melodies in my head but I couldn’t speak much. I couldn’t find the lyrics at all but I had these songs in my head, which is really weird. And I could play them in a rudimentary way. My right hand was not working at all so I just strummed a little bit. I would play these songs, but I didn’t know the names of the songs. Having the musical part of my brain intact was really helpful so I could focus on producing sounds and words instead of trying to make a sentence. But having that musical memory helped me put together the good stuff that I still had with the stuff that I lost, like my word finding and my speech. I still have to work on my right hand, picking and strumming. But I have my memory of these songs that I’ve known for 30-plus years.
Q: Was playing that guitar just part of your rehab, your therapy, or were you also thinking that you could go back to doing what you love? Were you preparing to rejoin the band?
A: No, I was not thinking that. I went back to that time where it was just a hobby, not my career. It was great to have something that I really was interested in. That got me through the really painful part of rehab.
Q: Have you been writing or has it been as difficult to write as it is to speak?
A: Actually, I’ve been working on songs. It’s hard to come up with lyrics but I just have to think about it slowly. The good thing is if you have a decent idea, you can flush it out. You just have that one kernel and then you can build on that.
Q: Do you think some of these songs might end up on the next album? I read that you’re planning to work on a new album next year.
A: We have to find the time, but the idea is that we should record, so we’re gonna try to set aside enough time to work that out.
moe. performs at the Music Box at Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City, Aug. 4-5 at 8 p.m. Visit ticketmaster.com.
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