2018-11-15 - The Catalyst Atrium - Santa Cruz, CA
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.