Review: 2018-12-31 - The Van Buren - Phoenix, AZ
2018…what a year for our favorite band, Spafford!!! If there’s one major takeaway, it’s that this band grew leaps and bounds and is primed for major growth moving forward. With their growing songwriting creativity, a laser-focused, kick-ass crew running on all cylinders, and new management at their side, there’s nothing the band can’t accomplish.
Personally, I had the tremendous privilege of seeing 23 shows this year, spanning every tour, and 31 overall since 2017. I feel so fortunate for not only the music I’ve seen, but the shared passion that I’ve seen Nerds across America (documentary title, maybe??) bring to every Spafford show and, more importantly, to each other. This year, we supported each other in ways that, to some, might defy expectation. We raised money for sick nerds; we honored those whose families have suffered great tragedy, and we celebrated those that have reached new heights in their careers and lives. We’ve lifted those that were down and gifted those who have sought. We justified our Nugs subscriptions and our 14 hour drives and our seemingly endless hours. We left our families behind to feed our souls and, perhaps most importantly, our jones for Jon Rose prints. And hopefully, you brought something back for the kids…and no, a slap doesn’t count!
And after all that…NYE…where surprises abound and resolutions are made through a foggy haze of “party favors” and alcohol with bubbles. There is something about a NYE concert experience that defies explanation. For some, it is a turning of the page, an escape from the year’s trial and tribulations. For others, it is a celebration of the year’s milestones and accomplishments. Having set the precedent years before, bands like the Grateful Dead and, more recently, Phish, made certain the affair was (and is) replete with elevated displays of splendor and pageantry. So it’s no surprise that as rabid jam-band fanbases around the country settled in for their own calendar-turning dance parties, there would be surely be something special in the air at the Van Buren on this glorious Monday night.
Not that it didn’t have its challenges. After a few days of an unusually cold freeze that swept through the city, the sun managed to make it more than tolerable, but the low temperatures combined with rain this Monday afternoon cast a pall over the city. You wouldn’t know it from the Spafford faithful, however, as those in attendance the evening before were treated to an incredible night of bust-outs, new songs, and a sandwich that would make any weasel living in the Palisades extremely proud. (See what I did there? Shhh...I know…I know…)
I was especially nervous this day. My girlfriend, Shirley, was coming to town only for the NYE show and I had just spent the last two nights at The Rodeway Inn, the armpit of Van Buren Street. Shaking off the fleas, I pulled a Jeffersons and moved on up…to the (cough) luxurious 6-month old Hampton Inn, where I now felt like a provider and less like a crack addict and I was ready to roll, adult-style!
We entered the venue around 8:30. The excitement was palpable, as the Nerds swarmed the lobby buzzing about what was the night before and what would be the night to come.
The boys kicked off the historic evening with Stuck in the Middle With You…what a way to open the show for the hometown Nerds who have been hearing the band play the Stealers Wheel classic since 2012…but only 19 times since and twice in the last 12 shows (for those playing the home version of Spaffbase, brought to you by Spaffnerds.com). So although this is considered an anthem of sorts in Nerd-lore, it seems like it might be finally finding its way into the regular rotation, a welcome addition, I’m sure, to those who wondered what ever happened to it.
After Brian kicks off the vocals with his typical non-Gerry Rafferty-esque bite, Red takes the first solo, cascading the keys over Cam’s drum fills as Brian and Jordan lurk underneath, waiting to explode. Right at the 4 minute mark, Brian takes the reigns for a brief moment before the boys settle in for what will be a major blastoff, Spafford style. By the time the band begins to crescendo, Cam leading the way, Jordan and Brian lead the band into what I like to call Spafford’s signature “song within a song,” where the jam takes on its own uniquely lyrical melody, proving once again how much this anthemic powerhouse of yesteryear deserves regular play going forward. What makes this so special is the “Stuck at Van Buren with You” lyric they ride through most of the end while weaving back in the original title lyric to close it out. We Nerds certainly didn’t feel stuck, but if we were, I’m sure all of us would happily be bound and gagged and held hostage for hours…provided, of course, the band was still playing…cuz otherwise, holding several people hostage is a felony and surefire career killer. Stuck finishes and Brian welcomes us with “What’s up Phoenix? It’s good to see you again.” Aaaaaaand we’re off!
Next up…When It Falls, a song which debuted live in studio on April 5th, 2018 (which just happens to be…anyone? Anyone? The anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah in 1986...put it on your calendar now, there WILL be a quiz later!) and which, like all of their new tunes, has seen tremendous growth since its inception. I have now seen 4 of the 9 played and it gets better and better every time. I almost forget everything that is happening in this rare “under 5 (minutes)”, from Cam and Jordan leading the syncopated breaks to Brian’s thunderous intermittent growls and everything in between.
Minds Unchained. Simply, this song never disappoints. One of the ways Spafford hooked me is through their hooks and this one is no exception. There is always a tasty treat waiting for us when Brian slides up the neck to the final refrain and tonight was tasty indeed. As I’ve now seen 10 Minds live and listened to another 30, this may not have been their most exploratory (the Karl Denson appearance notwithstanding), but it certainly hit the spot, with Brian twirling a magic axe full of arpeggios before sliding up the neck and bringing it all back home to a huge crowd-pleasing exhale. Mmmm…yummy.
And now for something…somewhat different. Listening to the opening chords, one might have thought…hell, I don’t know what anyone was thinking, but we would soon enough find out that Leave the Light On was being played in the key of E instead of the typical key of B, forcing Jordan’s vocals to plummet to the lower depths of his vocal register. The haunting sound emanating from Jordan pervaded the entire song and it might have even tripped him up for a moment, as he flubbed some lyrics in the second verse before having a chuckle with the crowd and then confidently regaining his composure with “But I keep you candle burning in the window.” That’s all we can ask for, Jordan…oh and that amazing bass solo that immediately followed to kick off the first jam. As Brian turns it up a notch or 3, everyone joins in on this expansively rich, tight jam, until Jordan re-enters with vocals to lay the foundation for the distinctly different second jam, which had the showed the boys once again strutting their stuff while stretching out in ways that made the LTLO unique different. Hey, it’s NYE, right??
I remember hearing the first Broken Wing at 420 Sweetwater Fest for my birthday weekend and while I wasn’t immediately taken with how the lyrics meshed with the rhythm of the song, I was certainly taken with the melodic structure of the song and how hard the boys jam it! After I saw the Red Rocks show, I was hooked. This is yet another new song from 2018 that has made all the right moves in its development and allowed the band, particularly Cam, to really stretch out and flex their chops. Clocking in at around 11 minutes, it’s a song that brings sheer delight to the crowd as Cam brought it a to a thunderous conclusion. It’s no wonder Brian likes to say after almost every version of it, “Lades and gentlemen, Mr. Cameron LaForest on the drums” to the roar of cheering fans.
Aaaaand it’s crowd control time at he The Van Buren as Red leads us into yet another rousing version of Salamander Song. With Salamander, you always know what you’re getting…until last summer, when the song took a somewhat slight turn, much to the delight of most and, frankly, the disappointment of some. The song typically features a rip-roaring solo by Brian that begins with his inimitable picking style and builds to a tremendous crescendo before the entire band whips the crowd into a frenzy with “I’m dancing the the whole way hoooooome,” but on a hot summer night in early July, at the High Sierra Festival, Jordan took the solo on what would have typically been Brian’s. This was a mere days after a fellow Nerd casually told me that the band had recently been taking jazz lessons. Hmmm….well, the jazz influence is apparent, as Jordan has taken his solo to new heights every time out of the gate and it has only gotten better and better. The song ended with the typical “Hey’s” in the correct place for a much larger percentage of the crowd than at most shows, but I’m sure to some it still needs work.
Just when we thought the set might be ending…what’s this? Cam, Jordan and Red playing the opening chords of…wait…is it that Don Henley song? Why, yes it is…it’s Dirty Laundry! Now I have to admit, this is not a song to which I would typically stay tuned when it came on the radio when I was a kid, but as is always the case with Spafford, they make a fan out of me every time they play a song about which I was previously ambivalent! After Red does his best Henley impression, Brian takes a nifty solo to kick off the jammin’. The entire band joins in on the vocals before the boys modulate up a half step to finish off a tasty surprise for the faithful. The music drops out as we hear the boys, a cappella, sing:
“Kick ‘em when they’re up, kick ‘em when they’re down
Kick ‘em when they’re stiff, kick ‘em all around.”
End of set 1.
Looking back on it now, in this writer’s opinion, there was really no better choice to kick off the second set than America. Not that this crossed the band’s minds at all when they decided on the setlist, but the fact that our nation seems to be losing a lot somewhere across the fall, it was a fitting way to begin the end of 2018. And no sooner had they settled in for an expectedly extended jam when the boys had another surprise up their sleeves, this one in the form of perhaps the most American of rock bands, the good old Grateful Dead. I don’t think I’ve heard a 4 piece band tackle the Dead’s The Other One with such precision. Brian’s vocals were the perfect fit for Weir and Kreutzman’s cutting lyrics, Red’s keyboards evoked Tom Constanten’s haunting sound from the late 60’s, and Cam made sure nobody even thought for a second that a second percussionist was necessary to fill out the rhythm. 15 minutes is usually considered a long song, but not in Spafford time, 15 minutes was barely enough time for this spaceship to take off!
But wait…what’s this now?? Could it be that he spaceship is encountering…Aliens along the way?!?!?!? Why yes, I believe it could…well, either that or some perv Nerd brought their blow-up dolls to the show…unlike the hostage-taking, NOT a felony, but really kinda gross. With the band bringing some out-of-this-world vocal jamming, reminiscent of Phish’s vocal explorations (its okay, breathe, not a comparison, just a reference point), two green plastic blow-up aliens were tossed around the venue while the band kept the spacey undertones as the countdown to midnight began. Midnight struck and the boys burst into, of course, Auld Lang Syne, while each of their significant others walked onstage for a brief New Year’s kiss before the band wrapped up. I didn’t even notice the appearance by the ladies, as I was sharing may first New year’s kiss with my Shirley. And yes, it was spectacular! :-)
Right out of Auld Lang Syne, Brian brings us back to America with the familiarly lyrical A minor arpeggio rising like a Phoenix from the ashes and marking the beginning of the end of this meandering exploration. Just as the song ends, we hear the familiar rhythmic beat of The Reprise, a fitting bookend and the funky compositional foil to America. But what typically turns into the slow, funky calm before the storm took an unexpected turn here and the band stopped and Brian played the opening riff of…Blister in the Sun! Are we really going THERE now?!?!? Welllll...not quite…after the opening guitar riff and the iconic double taps on the kit, Cam and the boys take us right back to The Reprise…nice fakeout, gents...for now, at least!!!!
The Reprise had seen better days by the time Fall Tour 2017 rolled around. During Cam’s early days with the band, what had traditionally been a lengthy buildup to its classic “melody” half way through the song felt a bit like Brian was trying to get to the finish line sooner than later…with a few exceptions, of course (see: 11/10/17 Fort Collins!!) But as 2018 went on, the boys seemed to relish once again in the patient methodical approach to what makes this jam well worth the wait. Reaching its climax, the crowd whipped into a frenzy, the set closer burned like a wildfire in Northern California before the tempo slowed, we all took a breath and the band brought it to its final resting place.
End of Set 2.
Waiting to hear what the boys will play for an encore is always one of the most anticipated moments of any show, especially on NYE. Spafford may not have yet ventured headfirst into the aforementioned splendor and pageantry of other more well-known jam bands, but they had already proven that they had plenty of tricks up their sleeve, made even more obvious from the opening chords of Blister in the Sun. Blister is a crowd pleaser at just about any party from the time you were, like, 13...at my Bar Mitzvah (yes, that's right, on April 5th, 1986, good memory, fellow Nerd, you passed!). Let’s face it, if this song doesn’t get you at least a little pumped, you probably lack a pulse (also may affect sex drive, which is even worse that not having a pulse). When you get a bunch of Nerds in a room on NYE and the boys bust it out for the first time EVER, it’s something special. A rousing rendition of The Violent Femmes classic gave way to what has become a Spafford classic, Slip and Squander. After two nights of channeling Gregg Allman and Don Henley on Whipping Post and Dirty Laundry, respectively, it was time for a return to the sweeter side of Red, as the gently tread vocal verses gave way to temporary overdrive before settling in for a classic build on the shoulders of Dr. LaserFinger himself, the honorable Professor Moss.
Photo courtesy of Carson Church Media
One might’ve thought a two-song encore was just enough to satisfy the Nerd faithful, but when those opening chords of All In ring out from Jordan’s bass, you are guaranteed at least 15 more minutes of multi-genre, mind-bending jamorama! And what a rendition it was! All In got a LOTTA play over the festy summer tour and suffered from, according to some, at least, maybe a wee bit of overkill as it was assumed the tune is seen as a good cross-section of both their songwriting but also their multi-dimensional jamming prowess and thus a great way to draw in new fans in a limited time frame at festivals. But this Nerd never gets enough of it, as it is truly one of the great jam band anthems of all time. The crowd was certainly all in it for the ride…and holding on ever so tightly…because the “might as well drive” line, so beloved by Nerds everywhere, rang ever so true for the many who had driven from all over the country to see this spectacle of spectacles. Brian was in full force here (is he ever NOT?) as The Raven seemed to pull him towards the front of the stage for the song’s final movement, a tour de force of nastiness unmatched in the band’s entire repertoire. Red takes a nice solo here, accompanied by a powerful build with Cam before Brian begins his methodical climb to immortality. This song is living proof why you shouldn’t talk at a Spafford show. It’s not because it’s rude or because it’s annoying to those who “pay good money not to hear you talk,” as we have all seen on the boards. No…it’s because if you talk during what you think are the quiet moments (when conventional wisdom says that not much is going on), you will miss some of the most unique, precision picking you’ll ever hear waxing lyrical from a guitar. You will miss the seeds of a mind-bending extravaganza, with each member of the quartet adding layers upon layers of what grows into a monster climax, Brian fanning, Cam pounding, Jordan bomb-dropping and Red sustaining until they bring it all back to the final movement’s theme. WOW!!!
And…AAAAAAND…if that wasn’t enough, let’s do one more, shall we?
I used to think that The Traveling Wilbury’s End of the Line was an okay tune, nothing special. But, true to form, I will never listen to this song the same way again. When the boys started using it as their outro music, I used to joke on the boards that it was my least favorite song because it meant the Spafford show was over…and ya know, THAT kinda sucks, right? So how fitting that as the year closes out, we get to hear the boys perform their traditional outro song live for the very first time! Everyone got in on the fun here, with Brian and Red taking lead vocals and Cam lending his oft underutilized - and underrated! - vocals to the harmony. A light-hearted bonus romp left a nice tasty treat on our tongues as we cheered the boys for what will go down as an historic two-night reign on their home turf.
Well…that’s a wrap for 2018, folks. I know the anticipation is already super high for what it is to come in 2019 and beyond. The sky is the limit, so raise your Brooklyn/Denver VIP cups and toast to the wild ride that is…SPAFFORD!!!
You captured it perfectly. What a night and what a read! Thank you Marc 💥🕺🐝🌵💥
@mdjabber Thanks Marc. We Nerds are family. Discovering Spafford and their beautiful fans has been the greatest of gifts. Happy New Year!
Thanks, Jabber, for summing up a year of thrilling improvisation, art, and community-building in this killer review! Your ability to effortlessly weave in-and-out of the moment of the NYE show and the larger narrative of Spaff2018 is amazing.. what a great job for this crowning review for the year. Hope to see you out there again someday soon! Thanks for being part of this amazing experience!
@mdjabber Thanks Marc. Happy New Year!
No mention of that Makisupa tease at the beginning of LTLO? :D I'm pretty sure that's why it was in E..