Since 2001, the unofficial kickoff of the summer concert season in the Chicago area has been the Summer Camp Music Festival at Three Sisters Park in Chillicothe, Ill. In each of those 11 years, including this weekend, the headliner has been moe., a quintet from upstate New York that doesn’t discriminate against any musical genre.
Though their profile isn’t quite on the same level as jam-band contemporaries such as Phish and the Dave Matthews Band, who started about the same time in the late ‘80s, moe. has nonetheless forged an estimable career, a self-managed, self-produced one-band music industry that has released 10 studio albums in two decades, most of them on the quintet’s own Fatboy label, and forged a loyal and growing following on the touring circuit. Summer Camp became their Midwestern getaway after they came through Chillicothe in 2000 as part of a package tour.
“We just fell in love with the place – it’s not a traditional concert venue, but it’s a great place that’s both in the middle of nowhere but also in the middle of everything at the same time,” says moe. singer-guitarist-keyboardist Al Schnier with a laugh. “It’s like a scene from ‘The Little Rascals’: ‘Let’s clear out the old barn and put on a show!’”
For Schnier, the ultimate aspect of the three-day weekend -- with a lineup that ranges from hip-hop (Common) to alternative (Jane’s Addiction) and most everything in between -- is that it allows the band to relax and stretch out, playing or observing in many different contexts with friends, peers and heroes. “For me, personally, getting to spend a few moments watching Bela Fleck play banjo backstage makes it all worthwhile for me,” he says. “Or to watch Jimmy Herring play guitar with Widespread Panic last year. I saw (electronic artist) Bassnectar at Summer Camp for the first time two years ago and it blew me away, the sensory overload.”
Schnier says the touring circuit has changed radically in the last decade with headlining tours by major bands being replaced by multi-band, multi-day festivals.
“We’ve gone from a country driven by shed and stadium shows, to a more European model dominated by festivals,” he says. “There is an integration and crossover of jam bands and electronic music, or even people like Bela Fleck, and it works as a huge, live music event. People are coming for the event, not just a particular band. When midnight rolls around, people want to dance, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a jam band, a funk band or a DJ -- it all works.”
He sees it as an outgrowth of a more open-minded fan base; the children of the iPod and cellphone age routinely shuffle songs without regard to genre. It explains the longevity of the jam bands, who routinely have mixed and matched styles not only within their set lists, but inside individual songs. The band’s latest album, “What Happened to the La La’s” (Sugar Hill), marks a bit of a creative left turn, with more concise songs honed in collaboration with an outside producer (John Marks), but in concert the band is liable to take those songs anywhere, and often does.
“I’ve always noted that openness about our fans,” Schnier says. “The conversations we’ve been able to have over 20 years with them is that they’re music lovers. They don’t just have moe. music in their collection. We can have a profound conversation about deep cuts in the Frank Zappa catalogue and then turn to the new Radiohead album or what Sam Bush did at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Our fans share the same sort of diversity that we do in the band. We’ve all gone through our phases, listening to punk or postpunk or jazz, but by the time you reach this age in life, you like it all. I listen to the Clash on a regular basis, but also the Beatles and Tony Rice. That all finds its way into our music, and the fans seem to enjoy that.”
Summer Camp Festival with moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Jane’s Addiction, Pretty Lights, Primus, Common, Gov’t Mule and more, noon Friday-Sunday at Three Sisters Park, Chillicothe, Ill, $65 (Sunday only single-day tickets available) and $200 (three-day pass); summercampfestival.com