Review: 2017-11-10 - Aggie Theatre, Fort Collins, CO
Before delving into this review, a little background is in order. Any concert review is by definition personal in nature and the peak experience I had at the Fort Collins show is the result of a unique combination of factors. I discovered Spafford sometime in 2016, the result of a continuing effort to listen to new improvisational rock bands. Someone actually conducted an online study that determined that people stop listening to new music at age 33, but I’m trying to not let my ears go stale, even though I’m a decade past that deadline date -- old enough to have seen Jerry Garcia play with the Grateful Dead, to have watched Phish grow from a club band to playing MSG and to have seen bands like String Cheese Incident and moe. improve, peak and plateau.
One of the things that struck me initially about Spafford was their dynamic range, versatility, and songwriting. Here was a band that could deliver blistering rock and roll, incorporate electronic elements at times, but wasn’t afraid to engage in patient exploration in small bars. I liked Red’s presence in the mix and was obviously impressed by Brian's guitar-playing talent. When someone on a message board shared Cabin Jam 2, I realized these guys had a gift for collective improvisation that equaled or exceeded many bands that had been playing together for much longer.
I truly believe in the transformative power of live music. However, my life is very different than it was two decades ago when I had no responsibilities and could jump on tour and catch a run of shows at will. My family demands combined with the birth of my twin sons means that every show I can squeeze in is a gift. I have to hope that on the night I can get away, a band is "on". As I jokingly tell my 5-year-old daughter, "You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit." That doesn't mean I'm not critical if a band doesn't live up to expectations, but I try to be grateful every time I get to a show.
Over the past year, I listened to A LOT of Spafford recordings and grew extremely familiar with their catalog. In March, I saw them for the first time at Hodi’s Hideout in Fort Collins, a sold-out bar show that had some solid moments, but was a bit inconsistent (unfortunately, no recording has yet been made available).
When Fall Tour was announced, my original plan was to attend the Ogden Theater show, but when the Fort Collins show was added I opted for the Aggie instead as it’s only a 40-minute drive from my house up the road in Wyoming. I was even happier about my decision after seeing the Ogden setlist, which was missing most of my favorite material and seemed to be more song-oriented with special guests. I was also fervently hoping that they wouldn’t be too tired on their 4th show in a row and 8th in 9 nights. It turns out I had nothing to worry about.
The Aggie is hardly a charming venue, basically a giant box with a bar in the back and a capacity of 650. It’s known to get very hot in there when it’s packed, and while the venue was pretty full, it wasn’t sold-out and the floor had enough room to move comfortably. After putting my kids to bed, I drove down to meet my friend Eric, who had driven up from north Denver to see them for the first time at my urging. He got there early enough to secure a prime rail spot right in front of Red. The sound quality from that spot was perfect. We had no chompers nearby and were surrounded by friendly, engaged fans that left me free to focus on the music without distractions.
One thing that I had noticed during the 2017 festival sets and even at the late-night BB Kings show this past summer was that the setlists they were constructing seemed to have some flow issues. This wasn’t a problem tonight in either set. Instead we got well-polished heavy hitters, placed perfectly. This show was uptempo and high-energy, from beginning to end.
It’s A Bunch kicked things off and it immediately was clear that the band was clicking. About four minutes into the traditional song structure, they departed into a different, completely improvisational groove. It was exactly the type of detour I was hoping for, with Red alternating organ-sounding leads at a relaxed pace at first before they picked up the tempo and then slowed it down for a smooth segue into Mind’s Unchained.
You Don’t Know How it Feels was well-executed for being only the third version ever and the placement was perfect. I mean, who doesn’t like Tom Petty? The room had filled up by this point and the crowd was completely on board.
I think Slip and Squander is a beautiful song, a testament to the band’s songwriting abilities. There’s a Red recording out there of a solo set he played in 2016 where he performed Running on Empty, and the beginning of SnS reminds me a little of Jackson Browne. It also contains many of the hallmarks of the band that I enjoy – a slower, quiet piano intro and a slow build-up with introspective lyrics. In fact, the more I listen, the more I realize how critical Red’s patience, presence, and vocal abilities are to the “X Factor” that distinguishes Spafford from other bands in the genre.
It’s hard to go wrong with Windmill and this version "turned effortless". I thought Cam really pushed them along well during the middle jam section here as he and Brian are clearly getting more and more comfortable with each other. Brian’s searing leads were simply gorgeous, and the re-entry to the verses was smooth. While it doesn’t go into the outer reaches like some Windmills, the execution was flawless.
All In wasn’t on the printed setlist, so I like to consider it a bonus closer. I particularly connect to the lyrics of this song and love the exploratory middle section. Some versions of All In it feel like they’re spending a lot of time just searching for something to click, but this one never suffered from that problem. Instead it sounded like Spafford was a full-fledged prog rock band, majesticly channeling Yes or King Crimson. In all honesty, the closing chord sequence is a blatant homage to 20th Century Schizoid Man, but I don't consider that a bad thing.
At setbreak, I asked Eric his thoughts so far, given it was his first show. He was enthusiastic, but commented to me that while he liked the keyboardist, he felt he relied too heavily on the piano sound. "He should be more psychedelic," Eric said. Fair enough.
The second set plunged immediately into the abyss with the tastiest Virtual Bean Dip I’ve ever had. This sounded like a Disco Biscuits-inspired dance party in places. Perhaps the recent sit-in by Magner reinvigorated their inner Bisco fandom. It also literally seemed like Red had heard my friend talking, as he shifted gears multiple times with multiple synth sounds. The pace was being pushed and the electronic-influenced jamming that I felt had been largely missing over the summer as Cam got settled in finally seemed to be present again.
At about 11 minutes in, things got quiet as the band searched for a new direction. Eventually a new jam emerged organically, with a segue into Backdoor Funk that was as seamless as anything I’ve heard on this tour. Jordan turned on the filter and things started getting dirty and funky. The bass drove the jam, Red went for the organ sound eventually and once again they built to an absolutely raging climax. No subtlety here, just pure power -- Brian shredding and the band keeping pace.
The crowd practically exploded when the band started Electric Taco Stand. When the electronic drum sounds kicked in at four minutes, I was extremely pumped. Red started mixing up the synth sounds and it was full-on disco dance party time. It didn’t last too long, but just long enough to remind me how effortlessly they can shift from rock to electronica.
Just to prove that the can't be pigeonholed, they followed this dance party up by bringing out Dave Bruzza from Greensky Bluegrass for their fast-paced, bluegrass interpretation of The Red Hot Chili Peppers classic Soul to Squeeze. Even though it stood in stark contrast genre-wise from the previous song, this call didn’t hurt the flow of the set a bit and was welcomed by the bluegrass-friendly Colorado crowd.
America was simply shredded—Brian in full rock-star mode playing impressively clean leads and the band raging in perfect time behind him. It was so well polished it didn't matter that it wasn't stretched out more. The Reprise attached itself so perfectly to America, it almost feels like one song-- a great high-energy closer to an unbelievably upbeat set.
To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of Shake You Loose. In fact, it’s one of my least favorite originals. I just don’t get that excited by standard blues-based songs. I was ready to head for the door because my kids get up at 5:30 am and I figured I might as well try and get a few extra minutes of sleep. But Eric didn’t want to leave, so I hung around for the end of the song and I’m glad I did. When Shake You Loose wrapped up, Brian looked at the rest of the band, nodded and kicked into Galisteo Way. I love this song. Yes, the intro sounds like Chalkdust Torture, and the middle section is reminscent of NICU, but it's such a catchy party song that I'll forgive them for wearing their influences on their sleeves. Eric said it just reminds him of straightforward ska and I couldn't argue his point.
I walked out of the Aggie completely satiated. They executed some of their strongest material to perfection and delivered two energetic sets that never stalled and jams that never meandered. It’s an absolute joy to watch a band still improving like this one is right now-- it's hard to believe Cam has only been with them for 7 months. I bought a T-shirt on the way out the door, something I haven’t done at a show in probably 15 years. They deserved my merch dollars and they deserve continued success. I'm all in it for the ride.
Special thanks to Tara Gracer Photography for the jaw-dropping photos from The Aggie!!
@FreshTracks thanks for the awesome review! I dig and appreciate the depth of analysis for each song and the band overall. This was fun and informative. And, yes, the Prog is strong with these ones. I think that is a big chunk of their appeal to my ear. That second set VBD > BDF is all that and ten some. Great show! Hope it hooked Eric to this sonic wave we are all riding high