Bay Area, Day 2: In the Heart of America
The Great American Hall is a storied venue. Its most well-known regular might be Jerry himself, having performed here under his own name, with JGB, and for the Grateful Dead's first From the Vault recording. Many other legends have recorded here, though – Doc and Merle Watson, Boz Scaggs, Robin Williams, to name a few. Immediately upon entering, you can see why: the walls and ceiling are ornately hand-carved, amenities are well-located and convenient, and the whole building has an air of professionalism.
With a capacity of about five times the Catalyst Atrium, I knew this wouldn't be as personal an affair as the previous night. But that was more than made up for by the larger room's benefits: the full light rig is on display here, complete with LEDs, and from the first note the sound was robust, crisp and sublime. We decided to maximize these factors by hanging around the back center of the room.
And what better first note for the American Music Hall than that of America? This song is unpretentious, heavy and propulsive, and often (though not always) foreshadows a Reprise. What's not to like? The crowd gets moving. Mind's Unchained is next on the list. It's well-played, a cartwheeling court jester next after the opener's unapologetic intensity; as instructed, we soak it in and ease the pain. This song's guitar part sounds inspired by the Dead to me, surely a crowd pleaser in this venue and with the night's Killing It sticker theme being a double Jerry.
Leave the Light On gets the next call, the female fan favorite song if you judge by woo-ing gender. LTLO's lighthearted lyrical vibe isn't everyone's cup of tea, and while the uninitiated might accuse it of being white-guy-reggae, folks who know buckle their seatbelts. The first jam sounds a bit like a Windmill jam, with Brian finding a nice upward phrase and working it for a while. By the time we get to the bit Red always works in to the second jam – I'm gonna go ahead and coin that Red's Theme – the band has already struck a furious pace. While this version doesn't go too far afield musically, the lights were spectacular in this jam. The LEDs gave the room a sinister vibe in the beginning of the jam and the whole rig was used to great effect up through the peak.
This version of People gets the Red solo treatment, with the band hanging around just a little more than usual. The rising chords in the peak always give me goosebumps, and with that we're sent off to set break. We rest our legs a bit and get a fresh drink – though there's no rush, since the bar line is never long in this place. I have time for a brief conversation with a stranger where we're not sure if the words of America go "I lost it somewhere across the fall" or "somewhere across the fault", which would fit given that this venue was built immediately after the 1907 earthquake. We settle in near the front, Cam-side.
Virtual Bean Dip has been my opener call many times, for some reason. Spafford loves contrasting ideas in their songs, and VBD juxtaposes syncopated, malevolent metal with calm noodly jazz. In this case we don't get my favorite part, the wild drum segment at the end, but that's fine because its foregone in favor of a sprawling 28 minute jam. The band is on their own time here, patiently working together to cover a lot of ground. They finds a nice percussive salsa groove, and the crowd is moving and shaking, but several times they opt out of a forced peak in favor of shining a light on the next musical nook or cranny.
The segue into Salamander Song is smooth and superb, and suddenly I know why I recognized the salsa groove from the previous jam. Who doesn't love dancing in circles and Hey!-ing, especially after the headbanging opener? VBD > Salamander has happened before, on 8/18/18 and 1/25/18 to be exact, and it makes a great combo. Spafford loves to go deep, as they did the night before at the Atrium. But some nights it's the breadth of what they can play that leaves an impression.
The so-called fourth quarter is kicked off with Plans. I'm alright with having seen this song a ton since its debut, maybe because the band plays the hell out of it. This one belongs to Jordan. He finds a refrain he likes early in the jam and sticks to it stubbornly. He and Brian have played together a long time, and it's clear in this jam, as he provides the perfect underpinning for Brian's explorations. Cam backs off to an ambient space, letting us breathe the music in deep.
My dad had mused that in 3 days we were sure to get a Postman, and he was right. This one goes fairly deep, with some great interplay with a descending riff, and a patient build to the song's triumphant conclusion. It's a great way to close a solid set.
Catfish John is a frequent earworm for me, and it's a fitting choice to close out the show here given that it was popularized by the Dead. It's clear that the band put some extra thought into their set list on this night. The lights, venue, and crowd were all great, and that helped magnify the experience. LTLO and Plans were my personal highlights. Perhaps just due to the stupefying musicianship I had just witnessed the night before, I couldn't help but think that the band was holding back a bit. But the run wasn't over yet, and there was no reason for them not to leave it all on the table the following night.
Bay Area, Day 1: We got all our days ahead
This show marked an interesting date for me, being exactly a year after the first Spafford show my father and I attended together, at the Doug Fir. We'd set the plan to do this run of Bay Area shows several months ago when Fall Tour was announced, and had been bouncing texts back and forth in building, eager anticipation since. Upon landing at SFO, the apocalyptic mood set by the catastrophic Camp Fire had us both feeling a bit anxious.
But downtown Santa Cruz got us feeling right. It's a pleasant place if you don't mind the occasional stereotypical drum circle, and the vibe heading into the venue was laid back. Upon entry we did have to double check to make sure we were indeed seeing Spafford, and not "Spiderfly" as they were billed by the bouncer – but yes, this was the place.
After festival season, with its predictably high-energy but compact sets, busy tour schedules usually sees bands physically tired but well-practiced and firing on all cylinders. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I knew with three shows we were likely to get many of the songs we both wanted. (My hopeful list for the run: Todd's Tots, Aeroplane, My Road, Broken Wing, and something Tom Petty.) And since the band makes a habit of doing an extremely improv-heavy show near the beginnings and ends of each tour (see 3/5/18, 3/15/18, 10/9/18, 10/19/17, etc.) I figured we had a good chance of a long expedition into uncharted terrain.
It turned out, we wouldn't need to wait long for that trip. While there was no "named jam", the Atrium show was a jam monster, with the average song length clocking in somewhere in the upper 20 minute range. Starting things off was It's A Bunch. Since I witnessed its perfunctory, 4-minute debut two years ago, this song has turned into one of the band's favored launchpads. Summer Camp and the 10/1/17 Parody sandwich are two of my favorites. The anthemic rock portion of this song has a driving optimism to it that always makes me grin, and when it opens a show it feels like the like music that might be played over a montage of a space shuttle being trucked over to the launch pad.
Things immediately got funky and soupy before turning dysphonic, foreshadowing what would be somewhat of a theme for the evening. It took the band a while to get into the groove here – perhaps shaking off a long tour, or settling into the comfort of the tiny venue. A long jazzy segment with some strange effects from Jordan eventually dissolved into a long thoughtful ambience. From here they built things back up in an interesting key, with shades of Stash contributing color and depth to a healthy peak.
The jam afterwards was so unmistakably Backdoor Funk that one could have forgiven the band if they forgot to sing the song proper. But they found their way to the Kafkaesque lyrics, and the song itself strayed far and wide. Red employing his delay pedal with piano over a mellow late-night groove from the rest of the crew was one of my favorite jams of the show, featuring beautiful and unmistakably Spaffy playing from the entire band. A Red-Brian call-and-response jam brought the song to its conclusion, and then, after an hour spent seemingly hypnotized, it was set break.
I was reminded at this moment of why I seek out these smaller shows: the laborious 10 foot journey to the bar, the ready and nonchalant bar staff, the elephant head on the wall and rowboat hanging from the ceiling, the adorably casual hippie vibe of downtown Santa Cruz just outside. And the strength-to-cost ratio of the gin and tonics didn't hurt, either.
All My Friends is a killer way to open a set, especially when there's only about a hundred faces in the room and many are starting to look familiar. It also indicates that the band has no intent of letting the first set be the only improv showcase – its inevitable coda of Bee Jam is almost unrivaled for exploratory Spaffisms, and this one's no exception. A hard rock peak and a Police-esque phrase by Brian open the jam. There's some brief problems with the sound, but it gives us a chance to see this band's tight knit teamwork as the sound guy identifies and replaces a faulty mic on the kit without interrupting the quartet's flow.
Red moves to his synth, with the rest of the band growing more percussive and effect-laden. Once Cameron uncages the beat, there's a few minutes of intriguing, um, plinktronica?, with a seamless and impressive key shift from contemplative to brooding. Brian takes the lead and things take on that dysphonic, evil, jazzy tone again. When I know I'm reviewing, I try to take good notes on my phone during the jams, adjectives and thoughts and questions to look into later – but here I just wrote the horns emoji several times. 🤘🤘🤘 This is the prize of the show and perhaps one of the best jams I've heard this band play.
Cameron's synchronicity with Brian's moody phrasing is impeccable, but it's the chord progression Red locks on to that really glues this stunning passage together. Put In the Eyes of Thieves, a Rossini concerto, and a tornado full of amplifiers in a blender and you'll probably get something like this jam.
The band is wise to shift gears and leave the rancorous Stygian jamming behind, and a tasteful island groove is just the ticket. Jordan brings a bounciness to his phrasing that, coupled with Brian's effects, dissipates any remainder of the previous jam's tension. For a moment it sounds like we might get a Salamander Song, but Jordan and Cam take the reins and the jam changes directions to a funky rhythm.
The shift to My Road (My Road) is one of those segues that simultaneously comes out of nowhere, but feels totally obvious. We're treated to an ambient jam of the type MRMR is well-regarded for. The subtlety and intricacy of the evening so far – "hard" music, you might say – is then abandoned in favor of a celebratory headbanging style, what the kids call a rager.
This band does a great job with their covers – taking exploratory, artistic liberty with some, and paying dutiful penance with others. Soul to Squeeze is surely in the former camp, as they turn it into a sort of barefoot-dancin'-lake-fishin'-summer tune. There's a casual brashness to this band, and its exemplified by the way they Jordan sings that breakdown at double speed, while playing the hell out of the bass – as if to say, "If the previous 2 hours weren't enough, yeah, we can do that too."
This is truly a special show, full of great moments. The intimacy of the venue, friendly vibe in the crowd, and my personal musical preferences all make it unforgettable as an experience for me. But if you're looking for a highlight, it's in the middle of Bee Jam. If you only have 5 minutes to live, hug your loved ones, then put your headphones on and start the Nugs recording around 14:00.
A Thursday evening adventure to Beantown for my favorite band in the land: SPAFFORD. I was particularly excited because this was the first concert I had been able to attend since May, due to Phish's festival Curveball having been cancelled back in August. I was also giddy with anticipation as it was the first time I would be taping a national touring act...but more on that later.
Concerts in the greater Boston area are almost a family reunion of sorts and this evening would be no exception. I had plans to rendezvous with @Lauer-Nation when I arrived at the venue. I had also made arrangements to link up with Ted Gakidis, an experienced taper who was planning to tape as well. No trip to Boston would be complete without checking in with Team Sparkle, who made it out that evening with almost the entire roster (sorry you couldn't make it @soniabegonia ) The biggest surprise of the evening was seeing my two favorite Maineacs, Ryan Cierrello and Josh Herrick! Those gentlemen put in a down-and-back mission from the South Portland area and get the nod for doing what it takes on a Thursday night.
After making a soggy drive in the rain from NH, I parked in the garage right across the street from the venue and met up with Uncle Ron in front of the Royale. Security was friendly, un-intrusive, and quickly had us on our way up the steps and into the belly of the club. I had heard mixed reviews about the Royale but I must say that it was a great venue, and as I was soon to discover, has an incredible sound system! Uncle Ron made plans to find a spot in front of Cam with his buddies and I quickly found Ted with his rig already set up near the soundboard. I may have used the phrase "biggest surprise of the evening" a little too soon, as Ted introduced me to another taper who turned out to be: The Zman! Now, I know to some of you that probably doesn't register or seem relevant, but to a guy who practically grew up listening to and trading cassette tapes of live music...this was the equivalent of meeting a living legend! Ted was beyond gracious and offered to let me clamp my meager beginner's rig onto his stand and run with him and Zman. I was so nervous and unprepared that I declined at first but was encouraged and assured that I was no bother. After a few minutes getting myself set up, I was ready to enjoy the show!
The band opened with a beautiful rendition of Eternity. All My Friends filled the two slot and my anticipation meter spiked as I greedily awaited the swarming Bee Jam that followed. It was early, but the cohesiveness of the rhythm section was already on display. Jordan and Cam were locked in and together felt like a collective boot in the chest. I mentioned the Royale's superior soundsystem earlier, and new sound engineer Chris Erickson wasted no time putting it through the paces. Also of note, Jordan's bass rig for this tour is an absolute beast that tastefully finds the balance between thunderous and absolute low-end clarity.
A funky little bounce through Memphis in the Meantime and we were treated to the second jam of the evening, My Road(My Road) Always a favorite jam vehicle of mine, I was all smiles as Red worked his magic on his new board (@StankyMuffin help me out) emitting an array of otherwordly sounds and bending minds throughout the crowd. Brian also gave us a taste of his updated pedalboard and I was enamored with a particularly crunchy, dirty tone he was using.
To bookend the set, the band finished it off with another pretty ballad in the form of Diana.
There would be no foreplay or sweet nothings whispered as the band came out for second set charging with America. I can think of no better place than the city that launched the American Revolution to drop a ferocious "heart of America." It may not have had the goods to unseat "Philly or Asheville America" from their throne, but it was a high-energy take that set the tone for what was about to be a monster frame of music. Mind's Unchained did just that...unlock the doors and explore territory that eased the pain for close to 15 minutes. I had heard the Chicago version the band took for a similar ride on 10/6 and can say that I'm beyond stoked that Mind's is getting the treatment this tour.
Lonely. What can I say about this Lonely? Nothing that will do it justice. Please listen to this. Share it with your friends. I was in complete awe the entire way through and my recommendation is to carve out twenty minutes of time, put on some headphones, and truly drink in one of my favorite jams I have ever experienced live. It is that good. To close the set, Green Day's Longview was busted out after its second longest hiatus. Having only been played 7 times, it hadn't been seen since Boise back in March. The crowd chimed in, respectfully, on vocals and were treated to a particularly ambient, feel-good jam to pull the curtain on the second set.
After a quick break, the band came back out and Brian took a minute to acknowledge Cam and garner a round of applause for the young powerhouse that had been beating the tubs all night like they owed him rent money. Again, showing they know their fanbase like no other, Spafford dropped it on the One and treated Boston to a Reprise encore that left the floor with a few new weak spots.
I had noticed during the beginning of Mind's that I had committed a rookie error by forgetting to clear my SD card prior to the show and that I had run out of available space to continue recording. What did capture will never see the light of day, but I was comforted by the fact that it was captured in it's entirety by both Ted and Zman. Thank you for taping gentlemen and for being so kind to an enthusiastic bonehead like me.
An incredible evening, laced with Leviathan jams and my new favorite Spafford performance that I have attended.
Vermont in October is one of my favorite places on Earth. We were treated to an unseasonably warm couple days with near peak foliage. I got into town early and after a nice dinner and some pre show beers headed to the venue with my buddy. I wasn't there last year so I was a little surprised the place was so small. When the show started there were maybe 30 people there including staff.
Dream Jam opener into an aborted Take Your Mama, which was really only half a verse before they just went off into another jam. Dream Jam topped off at around 33 minutes with Mama around 12 minutes. As far as I'm concerned it was a 45 minute jam with a little Mama jam. The last 12 or so minutes of Jam Dream is just incredible. Jordan stepped right up and took control of the jam with Red and Brian peppering over Cams drums with a beautiful melody that builds up to a Brian led peak. The closing jam in Mama is just pure raw rocking Spafford with a near seamless segue into Backdoor Funk. BDF and its badass funky self ends a two song set.
Some Vermont freshies and Toppers and we're primed for set II.
Band opens with "Maple Jam" which is just an intro extension for the beast of a newer song, Broken Wing. BW jam took off with Red leading the charge and a fairly standard Brian rage build and peak. The meat and potatoes of this show is Salamander Song and Plans. Set list called for an extended Salamander Song->Alternate Ending->Salamander Song. They skipped AE and went into this beautiful dream like jam reminiscent of Phish circa '99. @crappygeorge , yes I missed every Hey just for you.
A little weird they played only a 30 minute 2nd set but we were treated to a 30 minute encore so it all washed out anyway. They played People which I love but this show is really all about Plans. The Brian rage jam after Jordan's vocals was a little extended and most certainly did rage. When they dropped into the big jam as usual Cam and Jordan brought the funk. This jam is like a highlight reel for all four guys though. Cam absolutely destroys and is far and away the backbone of the jam. About mid way through Brian bends down and plays with his board creating a wall of sound that bleeds in with Reds work so well. Jordan and Cam bringing that space funk like alien spacecraft landing on my face. Or at least, that's what it felt like. Monster peak and bam, that's a wrap.
I awoke Saturday morning in a strange bed in an unfamiliar room. The noise pollution outside was ugly, intrusive, and hurt my head. I began to put things together slowly.... Airbnb... NYC... Spafford with the homies... Oh yah, I remember now. It was almost noon, I stumbled out into the main living space where Uncle Ron (@Lauer-Nation ) and Brett (@603Brett ) had camped out on adjacent sofa beds. Wake up kids, let's go get lunch. We each ordered our own Roberta's pie, some cocktails and beers, and got our day started. (It didn't last long for me, as soon as we were back to the Airbnb I was napping until almost showtime.)
We got to the venue around 6:15-6:30ish and checked in for the VIP Q&A. The questions were fun and light, and the band answered them thoughtfully while still having a lot of fun with the whole thing. When that wrapped, the venue had the bar open for us (unlike the night before) and we got things rolling.
General doors opened at 7:30 and there was family everywhere you look in the venue from all over the country. So many hugs and handshakes and smiles and hugs. Drinks flowed, along with chatter about the previous night's show. The venue began to fill up for the sold out show as I took my spot on the rail while the rest of the crew scoped a spot on the balcony. Lights come down, band comes on, and we are off.
A standard romp through Simon and Lily got the night started off. They had asked for suggestions during the sound check the previous night and they had tuned up with this tune then. Next up came Backdoor Funk to bring the heat followed by a beautiful Slip and Squander that had the crowd eating out of Red's puddle palm. Another sound checked tune, In the Eyes of Thieves which had some extra flair from Brian came next and contained the first real raucous peak of the night. Shake You Loose brought it back down a little bit with that boogie woogie swing and it felt like the perfect slot for it. Ain't That Wrong kicked the party back up to 11 for a rocking dance party and suddenly it was setbreak and time for some air!
The talk during the break was allllll about the Electric Taco Stand that we could feel was coming and, oh boy, this one was smoking hot. Alternate Ending had been scratched from the setlist a few nights earlier and I had been holding out hope that I would be privy to my first rendition sometime this weekend.... Brian turned the peak from ETS on a dime and blissfully brought us to la-la-land. Cam's subtle snare march was so rock solid, driving and pushing the band through multiple soaring peaks that had me on Mars. Arms above my head, palms outstretched, surrendering to the bliss... And we are back into ETS. A few minutes back and Brian finds his machine gun riff and builds on it until the song rips to a close. How do they follow that? With a super upbeat bluegrass tinged Soul to Squeeze which seemed to have a little extra juice leftover from the last jam as Brian breaks out the machine gun and slays everyone with a brief but killer solo. Crazy is one of my favorite songs to re-listen to, and I've been fortunate to see it live previously and it felt like a perfect set closer for the night.
Beautiful Day encore was spine tingling... The crowd carried the last chorus run really well and the All In that closed the show was a BEAST.... They had saved the greatest and deepest jam for the end of the night and it had us all so amped as we burst out onto the street where the nitrous crews had already assembled to hawk their warm, sad, oxygenated N2O. We visited with friends, giving hugs and chatting on the street for 20 mins about our excitement for Sunday until Brett pulled us into the wrong Uber and another adventure began...