It’s a chilly Sunday evening in San Francisco, but it feels more like a Friday night because it’s December 30, and the New Year’s Eve holiday is on deck, one of the most celebrated of all holiday occasions in the live music world. Arizona-based jam rockers Spafford are back at the Great American Music Hall for a two-night stand, the historic venue where they concluded their 2018 fall tour. This time the band will be celebrating their ten-year anniversary over these two nights, and their dedicated fans are fired up about it.
San Francisco has long been a mecca for New Year’s Eve shows (often as multi-night runs), and playing the Great American for the occasion is another milestone for Spafford, who have been on quite a rise over the past few years. The old-timey venue has something of a sacred vibe in these parts, lending a certain synchronicity to this run what with how the band has recently released a 46-minute track dubbed “Chapel Jam” from an off night spent in an old mission turned into an Airbnb in the middle of nowhere in 2017.
Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” blares from the PA as the lights go down, clearly getting the band primed for another night living on a lighted stage approaching the unreal. A big highlight occurs when keyboardist Red Johnson throws out a very brief tease of Phish’s “Wolfman’s Brother”, which raises and then quickly dashes such hopes (until they bust it out the following night). But the tease leads right into a crowd-pleasing cosmic funk jam of Spafford’s own on “It’s a Bunch”. Bassist Jordan Fairless and drummer Nick Tkachyk catch an uplifting groove, while Johnson and guitarist Brian Moss weave blissful melodies on top as the quartet wastes no time taking the audience on a magic carpet ride to a higher dimension.
The ride grows into an extended sonic journey with the tempo and melodic direction shifting here and there, but never losing focus. The infectious groove keeps flowing while Moss employs an envelope filter tone that recalls Jerry Garcia’s work on songs like “Fire on the Mountain”. Soon the tempo picks up and the groove gets tighter as the audience continues to bask in the blissful sonic goodness, with Johnson switching from piano to electric organ that sounds more like a hot jam from Stevie Wonder or Widespread Panic.
That leads to a big peak like the crest of a wave that conjures a huge collective cheer as the band segues into “Backdoor Funk” after what’s been an exhilarating 30-minute jam. Then there’s “Ginger Stardust”, another blissful journey through time and space as Moss leads the way with his soaring guitar melodies.
Fan favorite “Slip and Squander” follows, a staple jam vehicle where the quartet locks in on the vibrant groove before Moss turns on the hose. Here his liquid guitar lines feel like they’re watering the audience as another certain famous jam-rock quartet has long been known for. “Salamander Song” features a big vocal hook, with a bluegrassy verse leading to a rocking chorus where the audience responds with a big “Hey!” in the pockets. The band builds another big peak to close the first set with a rocking flourish.
Spafford goes large to open the second set with a bluesy, funky jam on “Memphis in the Meantime” that extends into the 25-minute range. The rocking groove gives way to a spacey interlude, but Nick, the drummer, is still holding down a steady beat as the band dives into an underwater section. The jam keeps evolving as Fairless lays down a driving bassline, and it soon feels like the quartet is about to go into the Doors’ “LA Woman”. That does not materialize, but maybe jamming on a traveling vibe is how the band winds up in “America”, a similarly up-tempo tune where Spafford keeps rocking on. Johnson dials up some spacey cosmic synths, and it soon feels like the audience is traveling with Spafford into hyperspace on a mission for the Rebel Alliance.
The feel-good groove of “The Remedy” is another crowd-pleaser, with Johnson throwing down funky old school synth melodies that the band plays around. Some Spafford songs have certain moments that recall other jam-rock bands that influenced them, but the band has a knack for spinning those recognizable melodies or grooves into their tunes with their sound. The band’s jam heavy style may not be for everyone, but there’s no doubt that Spafford has developed a loyal following, and it’s got to feel great to have reached a pinnacle like playing the Great American on New Year’s Eve.
The next night is full of stiff competition around the Bay Area with the likes of Dead & Company playing the new Chase Center, Claypool Lennon Delirium at the Warfield Theater, Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the Fillmore, Maceo Parker at SF Jazz Center, Stu Allen & Mars Hotel at Terrapin Crossroads, and Green Leaf Rustlers at Sweetwater Music Hall. Being a part of that pantheon of New Year’s Eve entertainment in San Francisco is a feather in the cap for Spafford as they move into their next decade.