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Arts & Entertainment

Al Schnier Reflects on His Life, Career and moe.’s Upcoming Shows at The Capitol Theatre

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November 28, 2023

By W.B. King–

When Al Schnier thinks back to an early August evening in 1997, the phrase “imposter syndrome” comes to mind. Earlier that day, he and his bandmates in moe. served as opening act on the Furthur Festival, which was making a stop at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif. Also on the bill: Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby, Arlo Guthrie, Jorma Kaukonen, Robert Hunter, The Black Crowes as well as surviving members of his favorite band, the Grateful Dead, including Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart.

Two years earlier, Jerry Garcia, as Weir once noted, “checked out” for good. Schnier, who spent his high school and college years following the Dead around the country, now found himself playing guitar with an impromptu offshoot of the famed band. This marked the first time these eclectic musical marvels had shared the stage in a meaningful manner since Garcia’s passing.

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“I was losing my mind. It was such an incredible experience — like a kid in a candy store, but I also had thoughts like, ‘I don’t belong here,’” Schnier told The Hudson Independent via phone as his dog Bear was busy barking at squirrels in the background. “It’s like every kids dream…like getting to play with the Buffalo Bills. I never in a million years thought I would be a musician that interacted with those guys.”

Growing up in central New York in the Mohawk River Valley, Schnier came from an average, middle-class family. While he took classical piano lessons as a kid, the structure didn’t appeal to him so he began writing his own songs and also picked up the guitar. After playing in a host of local bands, he went off to college at SUNY Oneonta. And by 1990, he found himself in Buffalo joining forces with moe. founding members Rob Derhak (vocals/bass) and Chuck Garvey (vocals/guitar). In subsequent years, Vinnie Amico (drums), Jim Loughlin (percussion) and Nat Wilson (keyboards) joined the fold.

“We’ve been doing it for over 30 years,” reflected Schnier, a multi-instrumentalist and singer. “We’re like an old married couple that can finish each other’s sentences.”

Five Guys Named Moe

Cutting their teeth with small gigs in local bars, the band slowly began playing regionally in places like New Paltz, Albany and New York City. Originally named “Five Guys Named Moe” in honor of the Louis Jordan song, the band set their sights on the rest of America with a new name “moe.” and their first album, Fatboy (1992), in tow. In time, their national fan base grew to the point where they could fill seats at Radio City Musical Hall, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Carnegie Hall, among countless other venues.

“We liked music, we liked to party, and we wanted to put those two things together. We wanted to do what seemed like the coolest thing we could possibly do and not have to work a regular job. It didn’t even seem like a decision had to be made,” noted Derhak. “It’s was like, this is what we’re doing and it’s happening. The idea that 30 years later I would be a dad, paying a mortgage and earning a living, based on our band, with the same guys no less that never even crossed my mind.”

Not unlike a family, the band has experienced its share of challenges. In 2018, Derhak was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer. While he recovered and returned to the group the following year, Garvey was sidelined by a stroke in 2021.

“Everyone is doing great now, but not to mention we also had COVID in-between those two things. It was three major, traumatic setbacks that we lived through and like the pandemic did for everyone else, it just made us stronger in the end and closer to one another — more resilient,” Schnier shared, noting that Garvey recently rejoined the band. “All the good things you would want to come from something like that.”

Over the years, the band has released 12 studio albums, including This is not, We Are (2020), while racking up quite a few awards and accolades such as the City of Albany proclaiming February 24 “” Fans, Schnier said, can look forward to a new album in the not-so-distant future. These forthcoming tunes, like those on previous albums, are currently being road tested.

“First and foremost, we are big fans of a great song, so we are constantly chasing that thing, but we are also big fans of really fluid, liquid improvisation and if we can incorporate those two things together that’s what we have fun doing,” Schnier said. “We are currently playing about half a dozen new songs out and have a lot of new material to get to. After we are done touring in March [2024], we are going to focus on recording.”

The Willy Wonka of the Music Scene

Since The Capitol Theatre reopened in 2012, moe. has played a number of well-received shows at the historic venue and the band is eagerly awaiting its two-night stand on December 8 and 9, 2023. But moe.’s relationship with The Cap goes back to the 1990s, well before it was renovated.

“Even then the place had that legendary status and quality to it because [Frank] Zappa played there, the Dead played there, and then Phish and Blues Traveler played there who put it back on the map for our generation,” Schnier said. “But now, with all the work that has been done there — the vibe in that place is spectacular. The production is some of the best ever. The crew is fantastic — everyone there is. I can’t say enough good things about that place.”

Calling him the “Willy Wonka of the music scene,” Schnier credits venue owner Peter Shapiro with creating an environment where a community of music enthusiasts can celebrate in grand style. The band first met Shapiro in the 1990s when they played The Wetlands, the club he was running at the time in downtown Manhattan.

“He is one of the biggest fans of the music scene and is still so passionate about the music and that informs his decision making,” he said.

As Schnier looks forward to the upcoming performances, he noted that moe. has invited two special opening acts, Neighbor (12/8) and Midnight North (12/9). The latter band is led by Graham Lesh, son of former Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh.

“Fans can look for more of the same from us,” Schnier said when asked about what tunes the band might play. Along with tapping into their deep catalog of original music, moe. is also known for inspired interpretations of songs by The Allman Brothers, The Ramones, Little Feet and Led Zeppelin, among many others.

“We are going to keep rolling out new songs, and the cool thing is we will be rolling out more of Chuck’s songs too — the trickle of both those things has just been awesome,” he added. “It just feels so good to have him [Chuck Garvey] back again.”

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