Saturday Night Live Wire 

Guitar hero G.E. Smith's new band hits River Street Thursday

ASK MOST folks if the name G.E. Smith rings a bell, and you’ll likely get blank stares, despite the fact that millions of people have heard his music.

Known best to TV viewers as the blond, ponytailed band leader who mugged his way through the bumpers to commercial breaks on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (where he served as Musical Director from 1985-1995), he’s known to rock scholars for a six-year gig in Hall & Oates’ recording and touring band, and for an almost mythical two-and-a-half year stint as the lead guitarist in the original incarnation of Bob Dylan’s Neverending Tour.

Respected by guitarists worldwide for his masterful chops and reputedly encyclopedic knowledge of rock & roll, R&B and Americana, his current job is de facto band leader of the rising septet Moonalice.

An unabashedly retro, rollicking and (somewhat) freeform roots-rock band cut from the same improv-heavy cloth as middle period Grateful Dead, the band formed from the ashes of a group called The Flying Other Brothers, and boasts an enviable lineup of seriously talented, veteran musicians.

They’re about to release their debut CD, produced by none other than songwriter and A-list producer T Bone Burnett.

In a rather surprising development, the band will appear at our own Live Wire Music Hall this Thursday night in a co-billed show that finds them playing before the infamous, Zappa-esque elder statesman Col. Bruce Hampton and his current band The Quark Alliance.

This will be the first opportunity this area has had to witness this semi-high concept group that finds the members all adopting fake names (all ending in moonalice, of course) and throwing in tongue-in-cheek “legends” about their band’s supposed lineage in between funky, jazz and blues-informed romps that often come across as one-part NRBQ and one part vintage Little Feat.

And, as if that weren’t enough, this gig is one of a stretch of 23 shows that finds none other than legendary bassist —and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer— Jack Casady (of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fame) on board.

I spoke with Moonalice singer and guitarist Roger McNamee, who, interestingly enough, is better known as a successful tech investor and consultant. If you’ve ever heard of Elevation Partners, the media and entertainment venture capital firm that counts U2’s Bono as one of its partners, that’s Roger’s company.

Are the crowds you’re drawing mostly fans of some of Moonalice’s individual players, or are they fans of this band?

Roger McNamee: Musicians our age are generally forced to play the same songs they played 30 years ago night after night. Moonalice is an experiment. We decided to start all over. New band, new songs, new arrangements, new fans. We’re all in it together, figuring it out as we go along. Most of the shows are in clubs and small theaters and festivals, with audiences ranging from 100 people to 20,000.

You have an awful lot of bassists in this band. How do you go about deciding who’ll play on what tune?

Roger McNamee: In the nomadic clan of the Moonalice tribe, everyone plays bass. When Jack Casady is with us, as he is on this tour, he holds down the low end all by himself. When Jack is off with Hot Tuna, the rest of us rotate on bass. There aren’t any fights, but everyone wants to play. It keeps things thumping.

It’s been said this band tries to never play a song the same way twice. How difficult is that to maintain?

Roger McNamee: We’re not religious about it, but we don’t let ourselves get stuck in a rut. When your band leader is G.E. Smith, ruts are not an option! (laughs) We challenge each other every night, trying different things. When you come to the show, you’ll probably see G.E. call out an audible cue to keep us on our toes. He’ll call out the key and then start playing. It’s our job to figure what’s up. The results are amazing. As a result, every show is different.

What kind of setlist can folks at this Savannah show expect from this Moonalice gig?

Roger McNamee: First, we’ll dig through the repertoire to see if we know anything with a tie to Savannah. If not, we’ll ask some people who live there what they want to hear. If that fails, we’ll wing it!

Lastly, I know you’re in business with U2’s Bono. Any chance we’ll see him joining Moonalice in the event his new album tanks? He could always play bass...

Roger McNamee: In our dreams! (laughs) cs

Wagatail Presents: Col. Bruce Hampton & The Quark Alliance with Moonalice

When: Thurs., 10 pm

Where: Live Wire Music Hall

Cost: $12

Info: moonaliceband.com


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Jim Reed

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