One of the many pleasures of blogging for Parklife DC is getting exposed to myriad types of music throughout the DC metro area. Whether it’s experiencing a new local player putting her/ his voice out there in the cacophony of great area performers or seeing established national touring bands with huge loyal followings, the thrill of documenting live music (to my mind, its purest form) is indeed a privilege. For someone like me, with a foot in the past and one stepping into the future, I get to tread a musical path that stretches out in many directions.
The opportunity to attend a Spafford show for the first time was a chance to bridge my love of jam bands from the past (The Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers) with an emerging modern-day musical diversity where many genres (rock, pop, funk, reggae, R&B) meld into an expertly envisioned and executed improvisational style.
As Spafford’s website states: “Each song is a blank canvas, and Spafford paints a picture in real time each night with a musical palette known only to each other. It’s a private language comprised of their talent as musicians, and of their formidable catalog of influences — ranging from Steely Dan, electronic acts like The Crystal Method, to 90’s alt rock radio hits. Every show is a sonic pilgrimage — the journey of a team of musicians so in tune with each other that a single note communicates intent and purpose.”
On Feb. 5 at 9:30 Club, Eggy started the evening with a 40-minute set that featured a satisfying mix of pop, R&B, and rock (sometimes even verging on prog-rock). The band consists of Dani Battat (keyboards, vocals), Jake Brownstein (guitar, vocals), Alex Bailey (drums, vocals), and Michael Goodman (bass, vocals). In a signal of what was to come later, much of Eggy’s stage show consisted of long instrumental breaks, accented with vocal harmonizing reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
The set ended with a surprise as the opening riff to America’s “Sister Golden Hair” filled the room and the band launched into the pop classic, only for it to evolve into a full-on improvisational rocker. The skill and charm the band exhibited going from the “doo-wop, doo-wop, doo-wop, doo-wop” chorus into a semi jazz-fusion instrumental break returning to that feel-good chorus left smiles on the faces of an audience primed for Spafford.
Spafford’s second headlining visit to the 9:30 Club stage — coming close to exactly one year after their debut in February 2019 — found band members Jordan Fairless (bass, vocals), Andrew “Red” Johnson (keyboards, vocals), Brian Moss (guitar, vocals), and Nick Tkachyk (percussion) in fine form. Although I’m way late to the party, I suspect this show was just as compelling as is every Spafford performance.
Just before Spafford hit the stage, I was approached by a fellow fan who casually struck up a friendly, but somewhat rambling, conversation on his love for Spafford’s music. Mentioning he’d seen the band nine times in the past three years, he insisted that he wasn’t obsessed (“I didn’t quit my job to go on tour or anything”), but he clearly qualified as a Spaffnerd (yes, there is a website!). And though this was only my first show in 10 years (the band was founded in 2009), by the end I was most assuredly a Spaffnerd, as well.
Everything I’d read about Spafford’s live performances was spot on. From the opening notes of “Pretty Mama,” with the transition into “Walls” the band’s improvisational virtuosity was confirmed. The relatively mellow “Slip and Squander” provided a breather before the little bit of pop perfection of Filter’s “Take a Picture.”
Watch a fan video of Spafford performing “Take a Picture” at the 9:30 Club on YouTube:
The improvisational chops continued through the rest of the first set with “Night after Night” into “Virtual Bean Dip.” After a short break, Spafford came back for a second set that felt like one extended jam, albeit composed of distinct songs. Such is the virtuosity of Spafford; the extended instrumental passages never bore. The encore, another pop classic, the Atlanta Rhythm’s Section’s “So Into You,” brought the evening to satisfying conclusion.
Watch Spafford perform “Slip and Squander” at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre on YouTube:
Pretty Mama > Walls
Slip and Squander
Take a Picture (Filter)
Night After Night
Virtual Bean Dip
All My Friends > Bee Jam > Space Gadget
So Into You (Atlanta Rhythm Section)
Watching the band from the balcony as the night wound down, with my camera chips full, I found myself enthralled with this music that takes a one or two chord sequence that lasts eight, 10, or upward of 20 minutes and turn it into an exquisite musical journey. Jam bands are frequently accused (and in some cases, justifiably) of self-indulgent noodling; each player displaying his musical chops at the expense of fellow band members or worse, the song itself.
But that was not Spafford. The ebb and flow, the rise and fall of each extended passage always felt like the song was heading in a particular direction; that the musical tension would inevitably culminate into a satisfying musical climax. With Spafford, there was no noodling this night; only four musicians radiating intent and purpose.
Spafford keeps a heavy touring schedule and will be crisscrossing the country throughout much of 2020. Find live dates, music, and video on the band’s website.
Here are some pictures of Spafford performing at 9:30 Club on Feb. 5, 2020. All photos copyright and courtesy of Mark Caicedo.