ALBANY — It wasn’t too long ago when this city embraced a bacchanalian summer to celebrate its tricentennial, with The Sharks leading Capital City personalities through an earworm of “Let’s Have a Party, Albany.”
For Rob Derhak, the only conscious effort he had of piecing together his 30-plus year music career has been to keep the party going. He fooled around on bass guitar, playing music with friends Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey while attending the University of Buffalo. After producing some music, they trekked east down the Thruway and made Albany their home.
“I’d be lying if I said I remember them [days] crystal clear,” he said with a chuckle. “We were young and full of energy, and full of… we were partying a lot, a lot back then.”
The three continue to record and perform music as the popular jam band, moe. (the name is purposely stylized in all lower case, followed by a period). For over three decades, the band has corralled myriad musical forms on a truly original journey rich with crafty, clever songwriting and astonishing resourcefulness. Fueled by an impassioned fan base, moe. has spent much of those 30 years on the road, encompassing countless live performances marked by eclectic wit, deep friendship and exploratory invention.
moe. is to open the Empire State Plaza’s Capital Concert Series with a performance on Wednesday, July 6, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
“We cut our teeth in Buffalo and in Albany,” Derhak said, who co-founded the band with Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey while attending the University of Buffalo in 1990. A few short years later, they traveled down the Thruway and made Albany their home. “We had a place on Western Ave. … It was across from the Mobil station, near the university. Not sure if it’s there anymore.”
He remembers Albany’s past music scene as one steeped in the flavor of the time. Alternative music influenced by the Seattle sound made popular by Nirvana, Pearl Jam and more. It was 1995, and the fusion of music moe. presented on stage — funk, free jazz, country, classic and prog rock — had yet to be defined. The seeds had been planted around the college towns throughout the Northeast, germinating in New York City’s Wetlands; Burlington’s Nectar’s and Albany’s Valentine’s.
The club used to reside at 17 New Scotland Avenue in Albany. It closed its doors after Albany Medical Center announced a $110 million development project in 2013 that ultimately stretched across two blocks of the neighborhood. In its prime, however, regulars would described it with terms of endearment more apt for ugly dogs.
“t’s dirty and grimy and is the closest approximation of an urban rock club in the area,” wrote one Yelp reviewer, who gave it four out of five stars. “There’s a definite Valentine’s smell though – be warned. I can’t quite place my finger on what it is, but it’s not good.”
The two-story venue was Albany’s go-to for local music. Bands played on both floors, but the younger crowd not yet old enough to patronize the bar would be ushered upstairs where there was a larger stage. Derhak recalled playing on the first floor the first night the band played at Valentine’s. That’s from where Greg Bell first approached the band, told them they were good, and that he was bringing them upstairs.
From there, moe. started sharing nights with the Ominous Seapods, Yoke and Percy Hill all bands playing various concoctions of what’s now called jam music. Derhak described shows where the band would play two sets, each about two hours long. The club’s drop ceilings would fall down on them as they played, cramped and hot from the crowd that surrounded them.
“We would just be sweaty and a mess,” he said. They commonly stretched the shows out beyond 4 a.m. On Archive.org, someone uploaded a show from December 1995. Someone else left a comment, claiming to have been at the show after attending a Phish concert the same night at the Knickerbocker Arena. They made it in time to see Ominous Seapods and Mother Sound, too, before the music ended at 4:20 in the morning.
“The one thing we loved the most about doing that is the fact that we could just sputter home at the end of the night and get in our own beds,” Derhak said. “Or sometimes the party would follow us to our house and we wouldn’t actually get in our beds at all.”
Now 53, Derhak said he’s not looking to stretch those nights into the early morning anymore. “No. If we doing Jazz Fest or something like that, that’s just how it rolls there. I’m ancient, man. … I’m in bed by 11.”
moe. released its 12th studio album with “This Is Not, We Are” in 2020, and they’ve since continued their touring schedule. In May, they surprised local fans with a surprise one-off performance as Monkeys on Ecstasy, a use of alliteration as a wink and a nod to hardcore fans, at Empire Underground. The show sold out less than 48 hours from the announcement.
In 2017, he was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer after a lymph node was removed from his neck. The band stopped performing, honoring a few shows scheduled with the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, while he proceeded with chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Later that same year, his doctors declared him cancer-free. He’d still need to follow through with treatments over the next five years.
Derhak wasn’t asked about his cancer scare. It didn’t come up in conversation. Instead, we talked about longevity and life after music as a self-proclaimed “ancient” person.
“Wait a minute. Did I say that?” he said, jokingly. After a fit of laughter, he said, “I don’t think I’ll ever not do this.” He points to Lesh, who at 82 continues to perform a handful of shows each year under Phil Lesh and Friends.
“I can see us going into our 70s, just going and playing a big festival or something. But I don’t think I’ll ever stop.
“I can’t imagine ever not playing.”
Derhak’s side band, Blue Star Radiation, is to play afterward at The Hollow.