The green room below the Proud Larry’s stage is a humble one. Low ceilings and fraying couches greet artists who walk past the restaurant’s storage shelves. Touring bands won’t find champagne on ice or a red carpet down there, but that didn’t matter to Spafford. Larry’s is the club of these guys’ dreams.
Around 5 p.m. last Thursday, the green room’s wooden ceiling creaked with the footsteps of crew members loading the Arizona quartet’s equipment into the venue’s small corner stage.
“I walked in today and I was like, ‘Oh, hell yeah. Like, let’s do this,'” lead guitarist Brian Moss said before the show. “It’s on, you know, because you’re so close to the people.”
Spafford, a jam-funk band made up of Moss on guitar, Andrew “Red” Johnson on keys, Jordan Fairless on bass and Cameron Laforest on drums, had finally arrived in Oxford. The Larry’s show was the band’s 20th show in the 28 days since their 2019 winter tour began and their first show ever in Mississippi. They were more than happy to be there.
“There’s one place to start in Oxford, and that’s Proud Larry’s, right?” Moss said. “So if we never played Proud Larry’s, then we wouldn’t have, you know, the crest from you guys.”
During the past few years, Spafford has experienced an exponential boom in national attention, crowd sizes and, as Moss puts it, everything. They still enjoy playing smaller clubs, but larger venues like Red Rocks or Bonnaroo have begun to creep into their schedules alongside all the bars and pizza joints. The band’s lineup has also evolved since Moss and Fairless began playing music together in 2009, welcoming Red on keys in 2011 and Laforest to the drum kit in 2017.
“Playing the small clubs is awesome,” Red said. “It reminds me of that energy you felt, like when you’re a small band, and you play a show in front of like 100 people, and it’s the greatest thing that ever happened. Whereas playing giant festivals like Bonnaroo, I mean that’s pretty special, too. It’s just two completely different beasts. I don’t see any cons about any of it though.”
Moss, Red, Fairless and Laforest slunk in a line through the hooping and hollering crowd up to the Larry’s stage as Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” bumped through the speakers just after 9 p.m. on Thursday. In front of a room packed with happy fans, the band spoke no words and Moss led them into an original song called “Plans.”
“I always have a fun time playing ‘Plans,'” Moss said before the show.
That opening song grew into a 14-minute-long demonstration of exactly what Spafford is. They brought the tempo down and the multicolored strobe lights joined them there, sending the excitable crowd into a funky, bass-driven dance groove before Moss drug the song back into its recognizable chorus.
The audience might not have known it then, but the band from Prescott, Arizona, had come to play a special show. Their pre-written setlist only included three songs in the hour-long first set, signaling the type of show fans of the band’s sprawling jams have come to cherish.
“Bringing joy to other people is something that you can’t explain what that feels like on this mass level,” Moss said. “It’s really empowering and it’s really special, and it takes one to kind of really embrace it too, because there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it.”
After the “Plans” opener, Red took to the keys and vocals to lead the band through another original, “Slip and Squander.” Midway into the first set, the band began the frenetic opening riff to a fan favorite they had only played thrice before Larry’s, “Dirtbath.” Spafford took this new (first played Feb. 9) instrumental for a 25-minute-long jam that featured a few key changes and segues that the attentive crowd danced along with.
Following the three-song Spafford showcase and having reached the end of their planned setlist, the band took a pause onstage to discuss their next move. Out came a cover of Johnny Russell’s “Catfish John,” appropriate for the quartet’s Mississippi debut. After a straightforward run through of the song laced with references to the “Delta dawn,” magnolia blossoms and the city of Vicksburg, Spafford warned the crowd to not go anywhere and headed back to the green room for a setbreak.
“How can you not be a fan of (the blues), especially the old blues and Mississippi Delta area?” Red said. “All of the roots music that came out of this area — it’s freaking legendary.”
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The remainder of Spafford’s show at Proud Larry’s maintained the palpable energy of the first set and gave the crowd more of what it had come to expect. A roaring 26-minute rendition of the band’s “Ain’t That Wrong” grooved into a cover of JJ Grey and Mofro’s “On Fire” before Fairless sang and led the band in a 17-minute version of “Lonely.” They closed set two with one of their earliest tunes, “Electric Taco Stand.”
“It’s music, it’s fun. It’s a game, you’ve just got to know how to play it,” Moss said.
Shows like last week’s at Proud Larry’s remind the Spafford guys of their early days when they couldn’t pull off a tour like this 40-show, cross-country run through February and March because of other jobs or relationships. The band was born in tight-knit rooms like Larry’s, but they know that bigger things are on the horizon.
“All the feels are still there, it’s like the fans are bringing it, it’s bigger stages, it’s bigger stuff like that, but it still feels homey,” Moss said.
While the band admits things have changed over the last few years, they hold firm that their core mission of making people happy hasn’t.
“We had an old motto back in the day. It was ‘Changing lives, one show at a time,’” Moss said. “Basically it was you just trying to get one fan, one fan, didn’t matter where we were. Get one fan that like really liked us, and we’ll still hold on to that.”
Listen to the first set of Spafford’s Mississippi debut here, courtesy of the band: