For a so-called "jam band," moe. have a gift for brevity. Of the dozen songs on the group's fifth studio album, only four go long, and then modestly so: an average of six minutes apiece. Everything else on Dither is airtight groove-adelia, compact essays in twin-guitar sunshine and boyish-vocal cheer.
But in its gleaming rigor, Dither is not the antithesis of noodle rock; it is the way forward. Too many of moe.'s peers confuse the art of jamming with the easy fun of spinning out over a springy rhythm and a locked chord progression. But the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and the early Cream were all, in their fashion, lords of discipline: Olympian players and killer writers who improvised with the telepathy of composers. The men of moe. are a few years and LPs away from that kind of transcendence. But singer-bassist Rob Derhak, singer-guitarists Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey, drummer Vinnie Amico and percussionist Jim Loughlin have figured out how to integrate song and sprawl. The result is muscular guitar pop with room for rambling.
You can hear the spaces reserved for live fireworks in the raga- flavored tropicalia of "So Long" and the crunchy spunk of "Understand." The immediate payoff, though, is the clean, terse detail of Schnier and Garvey's interplay: the meaty skate of the guitars against the melting-snowfall harmonies in "Water"; the narcotic tangle of twang in "Opium." The restraint may be too much for taper's-section heads. But records and gigs were different worlds for the Dead and the Allmans, too. The trick is to live fully in each; moe. are settling in nicely.
Peakin' at the Beacon is the first official release from what is now an annual spring rite: three weeks of live Allmans in the Fillmore East-like intimacy of New York's Beacon Theater. The album is also something of an epitaph — shortly after this run of shows last year, founding guitarist Dickey Betts was fired. What you get here, then, is a tease, a compressed hint of what I saw, slack-jawed, on opening night: Betts jousting and soaring in heated fraternity with junior lead and slide guitarist Derek Trucks.
Regardless of lineup, the Allmans remain a nightly wonder. In their middle age, they have evolved beyond band-dom into a great repertory orchestra, a rock equivalent of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington organizations, revisiting classic material with fresh, practiced swing. All but two of the songs on Peakin' come from pre-'73 albums. Yet the Allmans still pull new suspense from the old standards: Betts' and Trucks' searing guitar harmonies, ascending in creeping-vine formation, in the prolonged climax of "Black Hearted Woman"; the greasy confidence of Trucks' slide break in "Ain't Wastin' Time No More" and the way the last sustained note coolly drips into Gregg Allman's smoky voice.
Peakin' is no replacement for the definitive thrills of 1971's At Fillmore East. But it presents the Allmans as a living thing with a sturdy song bag — and shows why I'll be back at the Beacon every year. Until they stop coming.