Jam band member got his start at age 10, drumming in his Niskayuna home on the kit he got for Christmas
BY NED CAMPBELL
BALLSTON SPA — When Vinnie Amico got his first drum set at age 10, he played a solo that rivaled the length of the 31⁄2-hour concerts for which his jam band, moe., is well-known.
The vintage-red sparkling Slingerland drum kit was a Christmas present, and he played it from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. at his Niskayuna home.
“My mom was like, ‘You gotta stop,’ ” said Amico, now 45. “We gotta get some sleep.”
From then on out, Amico wasn’t allowed to play drums when his mom, Sally Flannery, was home, so he played every day in the window of time between when he came home from school at 3 p.m. and when she arrived home from work at 5:30 p.m.
“I wasn’t really allowed to play the drums after that incident at Christmas,” he recalled. “I wasn’t really allowed to play it when my mom was home.”
To make the most of the other hours, he listened to music at night in his bedroom and in the wee hours of the morning on his Sony Walkman tape player while delivering newspapers for The Gazette around his Dean Street neighborhood until he had the drum parts memorized. He listened to what has become classic rock — bands like Van Halen, Black Sabbath and Rush.
Amico brought his drumming talents to Albany’s Palace Theatre on Dec. 30 and 31 for moe.’s annual homecoming, an event he says is tops among the roughly 100 shows the band, formerly based in Albany, plays around the world every year. He said he looks forward to playing for 3,000 fans so close to his hometown where the high-school kid in him can feel a sense of pride as the “Niskayuna boy done well.”
“I’m not on the road, I get to play my local gig, but my local gig happens to be a really big show,” he said.
Many in the Ballston Spa community where Amico lives with his wife, Debbie, and two daughters, Madison, 14, and Marley, 17, think local gigs are all that Amico plays.
“Parents and people that I know, they all know that I do this, but unless you’re into this scene of music, you don’t really know,” he said. “They think I’m in a cover band or some band that goes out and play shows.”
Many locals may be surprised to learn that Amico tours with a band that has helped define the improvisation-heavy jam band scene — along with the likes of Phish, the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers.
Mike Greenhaus, editor-in-chief of Relix music magazine, said “moe. are not only one of the most successful jam bands to emerge from the upstate and western New York local music scenes, but also one of the most successful and longest-running jam bands in the modern era.”
The sound of the band, which formed in 1989, began to solidify when Amico took over on drums in 1996, Greenhaus said.
“Especially after Jim Loughlin returned to the band as a percussionist a few years later, Vinnie was able to help create one of the most unique and powerful rhythm sections on the jam band circuit,” he said. “At times, he has a gentle touch, too, helping guide moe.’s more Americana- and country-oriented songs and playing with moe.’s guitarist Al Schnier in their side-project Floodwood. That mixture of well-crafted songs and fierce improvisation has been one of moe.’s calling cards since their earliest days playing around the Capital Region.”
Amico said growing up in Niskayuna influenced his ultimate decision to pursue a career in drumming. He said his hometown peers were passionate about music, and that of the Grateful Dead in particular. From about age 13, growing up down the road from Saratoga Performing Arts Center meant Amico and his friends were going to as many concerts as possible.
He said he also had plenty of opportunities to perform, with events like the Niskayuna High School Winter Jam and other concerts geared toward high school students in rock bands. As a junior, he joined a Grateful Dead cover band called Dark Star.
“There was a big population of kids into the Grateful Dead,” he said. “We got into it early for some reason at Niskayuna.”
And he credits his wife for encouraging him to join the band in 1996 when the band’s manager — then and now — Jon Topper gave him a call and offered him the job. At the time, Amico was playing with bands in Buffalo three to four nights a week while also working a full-time job.
Amico said he hesitated to say yes to the offer because Debbie was trying to have a baby.
“She was the one that told me to take the chance,” he said. “I pretty much owe the whole thing to her.”
Debbie Amico recalled the day when she learned she was pregnant with Marley, and remembers being adamant that her husband take the job.
“I took the test and I came out and I said, ‘We’ re having a baby,’ and he said ‘OK, I can’t take the gig with moe.,’ ” she said. “And I said, ‘You’d be stupid if you didn’t do this.’ ”
Amico said balancing life on the road with being a father and husband hasn’t been easy, but one thing makes it work: “I have an awesome wife,” he said, laughing.
But he said that while the touring life takes him away from his family for weeks at a time, when he’s not on the road, he gets a lot of quality time with his daughters that most dads who work 9-to-5 jobs don’t have.
“When I’m home, I’m a dad, that’s it — and a husband,” he said. “I don’t have another job, so I can focus a lot of time and effort into my kids’ lives.”
His wife said the hard work pays off.
“I know that my girls really respect and look up to him, and he’s a pretty damn good husband, too,” she said. “He does the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry, so when he’s home, I don’t have to do all that much. His cooking is really, really, really good.”
His specialty: Chicken riggies, the original Utica version his father, Sal Amico — a well-known jazz musician in Albany — used to make him.
Amico also calls himself an avid basketball player. On Christmas, while visiting family in Raleigh, N.C., he shot baskets with his father-in-law Don Blaha, a legendary local athlete who has been inducted into three Capital Region sports halls of fame.
Amico said he’s involved at Ballston Spa High School where his kids go to school, giving presentations on music and “my job.” He also coaches Madison’s travel softball team.
“You really get deeply involved in their lives, so you miss a lot by being away, which is tough,” he said, “but you see a lot by being home. I get to be a coach and travel and do a lot of things with them.”
Among those things: Seeing his older daughter, Marley, take after him as a musician and develop as a tenor saxophone player.
In March 2012, Amico got to share the stage with her at the State Theatre in Portland, Maine, when she played the saxophone solo in Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Amico said he and his bandmates were far more nervous than she was. Marley, then 14, nailed the solo, and the crowd of nearly 2,000 fans erupted, he said.
“She played it like it was nothing,” he said.
His wife said being married to a drummer in a world-famous band “can be pretty cool,” but she also said he’s the same guy she met at 14 in Niskayuna. They graduated high school in 1987 and were married in 1993.
“So to me he’s just Vinnie, and he’s been like my lifelong buddy and best friend,” she said.