Spafford at the Great American Music Hall, by Joshua Huver
Spafford (photo: Joshua Huver)

Beginning in Santa Cruz November 15 and ending with an SF double-header at Great American Music Hall, Arizona-based funk band Spafford closed out a 20-date fall tour with three nights in the greater Bay Area.

The band has been drawing similarities to established jam bands like Phish for quite some time now. Not only have they commanded the attention and ears of scene regulars, but it seems like every show attracts more first timers that fall in love.

Spafford is a band that sounds bigger than the sum of their parts. Made up of Andrew “Red” Johnson on keys, Jordan Fairless on bass, Brian Moss on guitar, and Cameron LaForest on drums, it’s truly incredible how they can fill out so much space in a room. All except LaForest share in vocal duties as well.

Spafford at the Great American Music Hall, by Joshua Huver

Even the band’s professional releases, such as 2017’s Abaculus — a 59-minute single track of improvising in the studio — relish in the uncertainty and creativity that it takes to keep a musical theme intact. Well past the prime of three to four minutes radio hits, especially.

Given their far-reaching limitations and the desire to push themselves and their music, the entire 20-date tour featured Spafford only. Sans opening act, and performing two sets of music and an encore every night. That averages to about two and a half hours of music a day, all unique and unprepared. To be fair, they had repeated songs throughout the tour, but always took them in new directions.

Starting on Thursday, in the intimate space of the Catalyst Atrium, the band’s creativity was on full display. Even though the song selector chart was reset for the end of the tour, it wouldn’t have mattered much. For the first set, they spent 32 minutes on the first song, “It’s a Bunch,” and without breaking the music, transitioned into a 25-minute version of “Backdoor Funk.” At the end of that song, they took a break.

Spafford at the Great American Music Hall, by Joshua Huver

Yup. You read that right. This is a jam band that actually jams. For the second set, the band opened with a short, two-and-a-half minute take on “All My Friends.” They quickly transitioned into the “Bee Jam” and stayed there for the next 35 minutes. Then the band must have run out of improvisation ideas for that song, as soon after they moved on to a third. The set ended with a 20-minute take on “My Road (My Road).”

For the encore, Spafford chose to cover the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ classic “Soul To Squeeze,” playing the song in double-time. It’s sort of hilarious when you think about how drawn-out the previous two hours of music were.

The following evening, the band hit the road for their two-night tour finale at the Great American Music Hall. These shows were set up to be incredibly unique, and Spafford teamed up with Oculus VR to livestream the entire concert in 360-degree virtual reality. I was in the venue, so I can’t speak to the quality of the VR experience. But seeing the plethora of cameras and microphones around the room gave me the feeling that it was totally kickass.

Spafford at the Great American Music Hall, by Joshua Huver

On Friday night, the band opened up with “America,” an appropriate fit given the venue. Three of the four songs in, the first set stayed around the 10- to 15-minute mark. Meanwhile, the fan favorite “Leave The Light On” took off near the end of the set, nearly reaching into 20 minutes.

For the second set, Spafford played for almost a half-hour. The first 30 minutes alone were dedicated to “Virtual Bean Dip.” “Salamander Song,” which was originally slated for the encore in Santa Cruz, came next, clocking in at nine minutes. “Plans” broke into a 20-minute version of “The Postman” to close the set. They encored with a single song, “Catfish John,” to end the show.

Unfortunately, for the third and final show of the weekend, I opted to remain home in Santa Cruz. The worsening air quality and my work schedule made it a difficult, but necessary, choice. But for those curious, reported highlights included original tunes “Todd’s Tots” and “Electric Taco Stand.” The band also included three covers: “Breakdown” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Alex Clare’s “Too Close,” and the Grateful Dead’s “Feel Like A Stranger.” They played each in the first, second, and encore sets, respectively.

All of the band’s music is available for re-listening via crowd tapers and the band’s own soundboard mixes on Archive. I highly recommend any curious listeners to check out how a band can routinely keep an hour of music flowing.