Whether on tour or in the studio, Spafford spreads jam

Tahoe Onstage

These boys can jam: Spafford is rocking High Sierra Music Festival.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tony Contini

Spafford from Prescott, Arizona, has a discography of three studio albums and five live albums. Contemporary technology gives the band the opportunity to record shows with high-quality sound and get it out to fans quickly.

“It’s just more accessible at this point because we tour so much, we have so much time on the road,” vocalist/guitarist Brian Moss said.

Last year, Spafford had the opportunity to spend two weeks at IV Lab Studios in Chicago to record its latest release “For Amusement Only.” They’re always looking for the next time frame to go back into the studio and record.

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

“It’s different worlds and a change of gears,” drummer Cameron Laforest said. “It’s refreshing to go into the studio after playing so many shows. Then once all your work is done, you go out and play shows again.”

Spafford adds a meaning to the usage of “play.” They view studio time as work, and concerts as play.

When you type “Spafford” into YouTube, the top video is just under three hours long. These boys can jam. To do this, Moss has played every day for most his life.

“Since the age of 10 years old, I was in a band,” Moss said. “I play guitar every single day. To do this, you have to play with others, study, go to school, always surround yourself with like-minded musicians and continue pushing yourself.”

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Performing marathon sets adds a layer of physical demand for drummers. Laforest said he manages by combining adequate rest, eating well, going to the gym and doing long periods of playing at home as conditioning. On the first night of Spafford’s first time at High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California, they played a two-hour late-night set with no break. They said the front row had amazing energy and laser-beam eyes that didn’t want to look away.

Tony Contini / Tahoe OnstageEvery member of the band if very facially expressive. Their bassist, Jordan Fairless, will be chillin’ in the drummer’s pocket, then all-of-sudden fit in four notes where a normal person can pluck one.  He drops hints at Claypool funk. Many times throughout a set, he plays bass lines so hard to follow that he has to nod and mouth to himself like a crazy person.

In a short time, they can drift from dirty blues to country to shredding rock and throw in a cover of “Soul To Squeeze” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers for good measure. Their keyboard player, Andrew “Red” Johnson, lays down Hornsby-esque interludes. They can sit and feel a groove however long they want while letting the song be their guide.

They ride the wave of jam music while incorporating rock sentiments from ’90s bands such as Blues Traveler. When asked about quintessential jam bands, Johnson said it’s The Allman Brothers Band and Little Feat. He later turned to Phish and Widespread Panic when he found his own lane in the spectrum of jam bands. Laforest said Umphrey’s McGee because it does a little bit of everything. Fairless said he’s not qualified to answer, and I beg to differ. Moss said Spin Doctors, then Grateful Dead.

“They’re responsible for this mess,” Moss said. “I think we can all blame and thank (The Dead) for this. It’s wonderful what they set out for bands like us.”

Spafford pushes itself to the limit while seeming extremely lax. When its show in Tahoe’s Crystal Bay Casino was canceled due to snow, the performance was pushed from a Friday to a Monday.

“It was a different vibe and fewer people probably came out,” Moss said. “But it didn’t matter.”

They hadn’t played any Monday shows, so they let the night lead them.

“We told ourselves to let it go if it wants to,” Moss said. “And it just did. It was still a great night in an awesome room.”

They played only two songs. That was it. Some bands have to stretch time onstage, while Spafford can blink and an hour passes.

“It’s hard to explain,” Moss said. “We’re just vehicles, man. The song was not ready to end yet so it didn’t end. I can’t explain it, but it didn’t want to stop.”

Music can be a beautiful give and take. Playing countless shows taught Laforest to sit back and let the music fall out.

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

“I don’t always have to do the work,” Laforest said. “I can hold back and let them create something. Then it comes back to me and I can develop it.”

Communication seems to be a crucial skill set in jam bands. Twiddle, another jam band featured at this year’s High Sierra, played before Spafford. I watched the four-piece pull itself out from deep inside the pocket. Their singer/guitarist motioned to the clock that read 4:56 p.m. with a sign under it that read “End at 5 p.m.” They probably have dozens of practiced ways to get somewhere, but they vibe off each other to find the right one for the situation.

Moss’ ideal set combines a little bit of everything. When he writes sets, he tries to put it together with an ebb and flow of feelings, transitions and tempos. He wakes up ready to hit slow, bluesy stuff, but also loves fast songs and shredding.

“I love the complete whim of improv and not knowing what’s going to happen next,” Moss said. “Here we are and this is happening now. Last night felt really nice because it had so much of that.”

Fairless’ ideal set is when all the equipment is working, they can hear each other and then get on and “relax.” Which ties back to all of life being work until they are on a stage.

I asked Moss, “What’s more important, connecting with the audience or expressing yourself?”

“It’s like being on an airplane,” Moss responded. “When the masks come down and you have a child with you, what do you do? You put your mask on first. You gotta take care of yourself first. If you don’t love yourself, you can’t love someone else.”

While onstage, if he can’t have complete conviction with what he’s doing, the crowd isn’t going to have a good time.

“The only reason that they are is because we do,” Moss said.

                                                                                                                                                — Tony Contini

About Tony Contini

Photographer and journalist Tony Contini graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in art photography. He loves working with bands and telling stories. Photography portfolio: https://www.TonyContini.com

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