Moon Taxi is not a jam band. They may look young and eager, and may be known for their dynamic live shows, and lead singer Trevor Terndrup may have the vocal stamina and timbre of great jam rockers who have come before him. But Moon Taxi, a quintet out of Nashville that formed while the members were still students at Belmont University, is much more than another genre act or reggae-laced Phish wannabe. The upstarts brought their certain indefinable style to the table at Forecastle Festival this past weekend with an adrenaline-fueled show that is probably still being digested by a pleasantly surprised audience.
“We’ve met some great people in Kentucky over the past few years,” Terndrup told the enthusiastic crowd early in the set, “and this is like a culmination of all that.” The “culmination” that followed was a string of unfailingly energetic, multidimensional, masterfully assembled performances. Hits from their fresh-out-of-the-oven album Cabaret like “Southern Trance” and “Square Circles” and older material like “Here to Stay” were thrown into the boiling pot of Tyler Ritter’s rollicking breaks on the drums, Tommy Putnam’s formidable bass lines, and Spencer Thomson’s and Terndrup’s harmonized guitars. And of course Wes Bailey on the keys was the band’s not-so-secret weapon: not only did he ignite the middle of the set with an abrupt and shockingly good piano solo, but almost as if realizing that moment would be impossible to recreate, switched effortlessly to the electric organ near the end of the hour for another explosive contribution. His influence, along with the interjection of massive guitar riffs and Terndrup on the wah-wah pedal, made the direction the band was taking each song wholly unpredictable, ensnaring the audience with artfully executed twists and turns. By the time they busted out with a bold cover of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” which featured the same Squallis Puppeteers who joined My Morning Jacket for an encore the previous night, the crowd was thrown into utter paroxysms. Arms were pumping and heads were bobbing furiously when the title track from Cabaret closed out the afternoon, making the Moon Taxi show the most dynamic one – and the one with the most audience participation per capita – this writer experienced all weekend.
What is obvious and yet not so obvious about Moon Taxi is that it is composed of “music school kids.” It’s abundantly clear the boys know how to write a hit song, with terrific hooking melodies and choruses that are only enhanced by Terndrup’s unstoppable voice. And it’s also true that they have mastered the art of using their many influences to create their own brand, which is why they can’t necessarily be categorized as a “jam band.” While they seem to specialize in those great chaotic, frenetic digressions that constantly alter the path of the performance, they simultaneously fit themselves securely into the structure of the song, unwilling to compromise its integrity. What makes them completely unlike other well-schooled musicians, however, is their uninhibited passion. The grins they wear plastered on their faces at the opening and closing of every song are not only genuine, but totally infectious. Perhaps that quality is what defines Moon Taxi more than anything else.