By Michael Lester
moe. guitarist Al Schnier was determined to form a funk band for his latest side project a couple years ago. Then his father, a 1990s liver transplant recipient, became seriously ill and near death. Meanwhile, Schnier’s preferred collaborators for the band had commitments with other bands.
What Schnier, 45, wound up with instead was a hastily arranged, five-man string band called Floodwood that includes close friend and moe. drummer Vinnie Amico and Wooden Spoon mandolin player Jason Barady, who attended the same upstate New York high school as Schnier and fellow moe. guitarist Chuck Garvey.
Floodwood, which formed about two years ago, returns for its third gig at the River Street Jazz Cafe in Plains, Thursday, Sept. 12, two days after the official release of its debut 13-track album, “This is Life.”
An avid skier and snowboarder, Schnier took a break from studying for a ski patrol test at his home in Utica this week to discuss the origins of Floodwood, the new album and the upcoming River Street show.
“It’s my ongoing obsession with skiing,” said the father of a teen son and teen daughter, explaining the ski patrol endeavor. “I just figured, at this point in my life, if I didn’t start training to become a ski patrol (officer), I might never ever do it.”
Schnier, married to wife Diane 17 years, must pass both written and practical tests, during which he must demonstrate he can be a reliable first responder for mountain rescues, skiing accidents and medical situations.
“It’s something I always wanted to do. It’s something I hope to do for the rest of my life. Ultimately, I enjoy skiing so much, I can also have a more engaged role. It would be pretty cool,” Schnier said. “It seems to be right in my wheelhouse somehow. You basically ski all day. You open and close the mountain. Making sure people are safe seems like a good role for me.”
Schnier said he and Barady, whom he got to know well while playing gigs and visiting Taos, N.M., had been talking about putting together a bluegrass band for a few years. And it was Barady who “put a bug in my head” to finally launch Floodwood when the funk idea fizzled.
Schnier explains the sudden shift in musical gears in 2011.
“I got busy with moe. I made a record with the Everyone Orchestra. I started the funk band project, writing songs for it,” Schnier said. “It was right around the time my dad got really sick. I put (the funk band) on hold to spend as much time as I could with my dad (who died in 2011).
“By the time the spring came around, I was again trying to figure out what to do with this funk project.”
Schnier was hoping to debut the band at moe.down, one of the annual festivals hosted by moe. Until he discovered one of his hand-picked collaborators, sax player Sam Kininger, was touring that same weekend with his Brooklyn-based funk band Lettuce. And Schnier’s chosen drummer was playing a wedding in Chicago.
“It wasn’t meant to be,” Schnier lamented.
Coincidentally, around the same time, Barady was bugging Schnier about the bluegrass band they had been talking about since Barady had been living in Taos. That’s where Barady formed the bluegrass band Wooden Spoon.
Barady, whose father once operated a bakery in upstate New York, had returned to the Utica area several years ago and opened a restaurant that Schnier described as a “Lebanese-Mexican diner.” Barady closed the restaurant about a year ago.
Schnier and Barady agreed to give it a go at moe.down 2011, inviting Amico, Nick Piccininni, a mostly self-taught violinist who has toured with The Abrams Brothers, The Atkinson and the Delaneys, and bassist Zach Fleitz, who has played with Wooden Spoon. Schnier, Barady and Piccininni all lend vocals to Floodwood.
Amico, who also plays skins in Schnier’s Al and The Transamericans, was a natural fit on Floodwood’s drum kit. As far back as 25 years, Amico was drumming for a band covering Grateful Dead and Old and in the Way tunes during “acoustic forum weekly gigs” in Buffalo, Schnier explained.
“It’s not easy to find a drummer for this kind of thing,” Schnier said. “Vinnie is the person who has the right feel to be tasteful but also rock when he needs to. And he’s so rock solid. He’s like a metronome, having that sort of consistency.
“I hope I get to play with Vinnie the rest of my life,” Schnier added. “He’s an awesome friend and a great guy to be in a band with. He gets it. He’s got a great head for business. He’s an easy dude to be on the road with and try to run a business with. I don’t have a bad thing to say about him.
“Vinnie’s just really down to earth. Almost down to earth to a fault.”
Floodwood will soon set out on about a 20-date fall tour, including the River Street Jazz Cafe show.
“River Street is such a cool venue,” Schnier said. “Those guys take such good care of us. I think we’ve played twice there now. We really like the venue, good people there.”
Schnier returns to Northeastern Pennsylvania later in the month when moe. plays the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, Sunday, Sept. 29.