Before I moved out to Telluride from my South Florida home a couple of years ago, an esteemed local promoter with an ear for rising talent threw me a live recording of a band he had recently checked out in Arizona. I trusted his taste above most, sometimes even my own, and his being this stoked on an act I had not already heard was rare. The full-show recording notched a few spins on my multi-day drive from sea level to this mountain town I now call home, leaving an impression I never forgot, and more importantly, provided a sweet soundtrack to one of the most important journeys of my life.
Spafford is finally coming to Telluride this week, and it’s an arrival I do not take lightly. After two years of pushing for an appearance, and even making a failed attempt to bring them myself, the righteous jamband is coming to visit us at the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon this week.
Whether we admit it or not, it is a poorly kept secret that the jamband genre claims more than a few chapters in the Telluride music legacy. The Grateful Dead invaded for two nights in 1987 (I still chuckle when Jerry explains to a giddy audience, “Wait a minute, this is all fucked up. I am in the wrong key” during “Brokedown Palace”). Phish debuted a year later before triumphantly returning in 2010 for a pair of underrated shows (Mike’s Groove sandwiching “Crosseyed and Painless” before that “Carini” were worth it alone). Before I moved here, I caught moe. delivering two exceptionally inspired sets at Telluride Blues & Brews in 2011. The String Cheese Incident humbly took their energy into the intimacy of the Sheridan Opera House last summer during Telluride Bluegrass Festival for a statement show unlike anything I have ever heard from the band. These are the undisputed champions of the genre, and they all love Telluride.
For outsiders it is hard to comprehend why these jam giants bother investing the time, energy and money to hit such a small market. For us it is obvious.
Yet it has been a minute since we have witnessed the next landmark appearance, and it is not because the Telluride jam scene isn’t as alive as ever. It has just reached another peak, leaving room for the next phase, maintaining an exciting cloud of mystery for who will lead the charge from here.
Fanboy rhetoric out of the way, if we are being honest, the Grateful Dead spin-offs are phasing out, Phish can easily mail in setlists as often as they bust out noteworthy shows. The String Cheese Incident only provides a handful of opportunities to catch them each year, and moe. can hit very stagnant tours before reestablishing brilliance on the next round. The style that was built on relentless touring as a way to hone chops and push past audible borders is truly ready for the next class of hungry artists to put in work. So who will it be?
It seems that hybrid funk acts are the rising tide resulting from a peak many say crashed at a debatable point in time. As much as I admire these tight, high-energy outfits, I still hold onto hope for the purist approach to improvisational jam rock. One of the acts slowly forcing its hand into the discussion is Spafford.
A traditional four piece with Brian Moss on guitar, Nick Tyachyk knocking drums, Red Johnson pressing keys and Jordan Fairless kicking bass, they also include lighting director Chuck Johnson as a member of the band, and enlists graphic artists Sean Tierney to enhance the visual aspects of the live experience. With all the right peripheral pieces, it is the actual intangible chemistry of the band’s improvisational moments that makes them interesting.
Anyone can noodle for 20 minutes into a spacey, directionless movement of musical masturbation, but few can paint the soundscape with grooves that find a common ground before latching on to each other for a tension and release driven peak. That is the defining key element for any jamband, and it always has been.
It also helps that all four members can, and do, sing. A major pitfall for many jam purveyors, these guys bring vocalization to the forefront of their song structure as a strength. When they take off from these composed launch pads, the band also specializes in ripping guitar solos, funky synthesizers and navigable pocket rhythms. On tape, the band’s transitions from high energy moments to slowed down bounce grooves are relatively seamless, another facet of jambands that seems obvious yet often neglected.
As someone who has seen an embarrassingly high number of jamband shows, this is one that, as you can see from my fanboy rhetoric above, I am stoked is coming to Telluride. I may even catch them the night before at the Dolores River Brewery.
Spafford, Thu., May 29, Fly Me To The Moon Saloon, 10 p.m., $5