Review - 2018-03-07 - The Volcanic Theater & Pub - Bend, OR
High expectations. These two words summarize the vibe leading up to Spafford’s debut in Bend. For a little mountain town, we get a decent number of good acts. The local affinity for live music is potent. Posters for jam bands adorn the local watering holes. We have a regional reputation for “fun now, worry later,” and bands who know the way our town throws down make a habit of crossing the Cascade Range to pay a visit.
For many of my friends, this would be their first taste. I was excited to see what my pals thought of Brian, Red, Jordan and Cam in person. Just to make things even more interesting, this would be my second Spafford show with my 62-year-old father in attendance, having taken in the Doug Fir show with him in November. (Incidentally the date of one of the best versions of Slip & Squander ever to my ears – when Brian sustains that note during the jam, if you don’t get goosebumps you might want to check your pulse.) Dad saw many a wild show growing up in Detroit Rock City and whether through, age or, um, over-enjoyment, has probably forgotten more amazing musical moments than I’ve had the fortune to experience. The band are fresh off of a mind-boggling six-song show in Tahoe and their first rest day on this leg of the tour. So, in two words: High expectations.
They take the stage and the excitement is palpable. Brian looks to Cam and he counts us in – Plans will kick things off. With evocative lyrics and songwriting, the opening segment lays down a gentle cushion before Brian’s solo in the spicy pre-jam section – is “salsa metal” a thing? – knocks us on our asses. The funky jam begins and they take their time building it to a raging peak. 15 minutes into the show and the untrained ears in the venue are probably wondering how many songs the band has played. We’re off to a good start.
Relative rarity Levilan Shores is next, and all my Phishy friends begin singing Prince Caspian. For this reason, I’m not a huge fan of the beginning of this song – but the reggae section makes for a pleasant groove. The band briefly explores, and for just a moment, everyone gets to relax before the staccato attack of Ain’t That Wrong cuts into the Volcanic Theater. I smile to my friends: even when played perfunctorily, ATW is a ripper. The band is quick to find a funky groove, Cam rocking the cowbell, Brian getting into his rhythmic zone, the pace building, frenetic now – smiles and bouncing dance moves giving way to wide-eyed stares and hypnotic head bobbing. A freight train of peak smashes through our collective expectations, leaving a venue of splintered thoughts and single-word exchanges: Wow. Yeah. Dude. Spafford has arrived.
My father doesn't talk much during shows, but makes an exception – simply to say, “that was memorable.” Two of my friends who were weighing whether to make the drive to Boise this Saturday are high-fiving: gas money and weekend chores have abruptly exited their decision-making process. They tell me they’re going for sure. Not bad for 3 songs in.
People is next. I really like the theme and lyrics in this tune, as well as its occasional piano solo interlude. While its ending coda can sometimes be the peak of a set, this one comes off as a bit of a breather compared to the last tune. Cam counts in Windmill. The pleasant, meandering jam makes a beautiful juxtaposition to the shreddy set so far. The band lays down a psychedelia of rolling green hills, and I play Don Quixote, closing my eyes and getting lost in the soundscape. The Floydian middle segment gets a brief extension, Red tickling his piano for just a few more measures than usual, before the serene a capella and inevitable false cheer from the crowd leads us to the final section. There aren’t a lot of better ways to close a set than the blissful trills of the end of Windmill. One of the best parts of a small venue is not needing to hold down a spot during set break; the entire crowd dissipates to relieve bladders, replenish beers, and fill the patio air with Oregon’s finest haze.
Much like Plans and Windmill, The Postman is a thematic keystone in Spafford’s repertoire, going through several movements before arriving at the jam segment. To a new listener, the changes are unpredictable but enjoyable, like when a beer you've never tried becomes your new favorite in the first sip. To an experienced listener, they're the standby IPA that the bartender is pouring before you sit down. But this one is a bit special: the jam builds, with first Jordan teasing and then, slowly, Cam and Brian all playing My Road, My Road, to the point that the segue is all but assured. But it's not to be, and at Brian's insistence they back way off, build it again, and bring Postman to its usual glorious apex.
Reggae grooves seem to be the cooldown of choice tonight, and Diana is in the second slot. It's a sweet song, and a nice breather before the punky syncopations of Night After Night begin. I don't think this song has quite found its legs, but its vibe and tempo make me enthusiastic for the version that changes my mind. Still, it does its job getting the Bend crowd of beanies and brims headbanging. We’re almost three quarters of the way through the show, and while utterly satisfied I can't help but start to wonder if we'll get a truly deep cut. Did the band leave all their improv mojo on stage in Tahoe?
Walls starts, the third song in a row with that offbeat-guitar island feel. Jordan opts for a fuzzy, aggressive tone. Cam’s eyes are closed, locked into the four-on-the-floor. We’ve left the island and are now navigating choppy seas to uncharted realms. He switches to his MIDI pad, resonant booming synthesized bass slapping like monster waves against the hull. Brian and Red waltz around each other in minor keys. The lights are low and malevolent; we don’t know where the ship is going, but if this is our last night we’ll go out with an evil dance party.
The night passes, and with it the storm; Cam’s Poseidonian wrath gives way to colorful ambience, brushing his cymbals and leaving the confines of structure behind. The band takes this opportunity to show their melodic pedigree, and their patience – we linger here for a while. For me it’s the highlight of the show; just a few rows back, I’m adrift on a calm sea. I don’t know how long my eyes are closed. Brian, his head low as if in prayer, steers us softly towards a familiar, vaguely sinister vibe. The ship slides into port with Backdoor Funk; it’s the first proper segue of the night and flawless. Sultry and full of imagery, these are some of my favorite Spafford lyrics. The jam has a regretful, angry tone, and arrives at a cathartic resolution, a fitting capstone to a 40+ minute segment of improvisation. I cross my fingers for one more.
Into the Mystic is the first cover of the night. The show thus far has tapped many emotions, but Van Morrison’s legendary heartfelt ballad is a missing puzzle piece; a superb choice to close out the show. The band are barely offstage before the encore, anxious to use every available second on music. Funky 5/4 romper Dis Go in 5? is an interesting choice to me. The ending abruptly jumps to a normal time signature and we get one final improvisational segment. They slowly, comically find their way into Hollywood, laughing at each other on stage as each member resists the segue, wanting to play forever. They’re having entirely too much fun and so are we. It’s just the second verse and ending, to complete the version from 3/3/18.
The stage is so small that the band has to move microphones and gear out of the way to take their bow; I feel a moment of total gratitude for getting to see musicians of this quality in what is essentially a medium-size bar. The crowd shows their appreciation as well, hoping this won’t be the last time Spafford comes through our little town. My friends and my dad are all hugs and high-fives. As lucky as I feel to see a band of this caliber, I know I’m even more lucky to have people like this to share it with. The common binding is that none of us want the show to be over. I don’t have to ask; I know everyone’s expectations were met and exceeded.
Show highlights: Ain’t That Wrong, The Postman, Walls
Show MVP: Cam
Excellent review! You've a gift there mate.
Thanks @jeenot, killer review! I felt like I lived the show a bit through your words. And what a show.. I love the opening Plans jam, a mighty Windmill, big Postman, and HOLY FUCKING SHIT Walls, with nothing disappointing in-between.
I'm with you on Night After Night too.. I love the way it slams and grooves and I think it has HUGE potential to explode into MESMERIZING jams with hellfire PEAKS! I think The Grog Shop one does the best job so far of hinting at its potential..Red rips it up coming out of that far out Red's Jam.
@Mike's-Unchained Thanks! It's all the band really.. I just tried to channel the experience into words. Super grateful to them!
@Johnny-Love Thanks for the opportunity, I'd love to do more in the future! Wish I knew the next show I'd see .. probably not until fall :(
@jeenot I feel your pain... where oh where are my Northeast tour dates??!
great review man! I miss that area. I lived in a little place called La Pine in the mid 90's as I evaded the Kamloops BC troupers looking to talk to me. Some of the nicest people ever and the kindest sativa I had ever smoked up to that point. I lived with a logger who enjoyed touring so thats what we did. Chillin' out at Nursery Park. Anyway, just got that Bend show and very much looking forward to hearing it. peace & nugs.