Two days. One river. Eight great bands. The inaugural Canyon Jam was a hands-down success this past weekend at the Mishawaka, bringing together a group of the jam scene’s top young talent into one well-organized and well-executed festival. Few outdoor venues in Colorado—or the country for that matter—stack up to the intimate beauty of the Mishawaka in Bellevue, Colorado. The venue derives its name from a Native American word meaning “Big Rapids,” and the wooden stage sits tight against the banks of the Cache La Poudre River surrounded by the sheer cliffs of the canyon. Its natural scenery was the perfect setting to take a break from civilization and take in some incredible sold-out performances by Spafford, The Main Squeeze, Aqueous, Mungion, Organ Freeman, and more.
Things kicked off Friday night with a soulful opening performance from Denver-based Moves at Midnight. Their catchy dance beats and melodic play between baritone and tenor saxophones delighted the early crowd. Next up was Chicago’s Mungion, a four-piece prog powerhouse that perhaps had the best chops of any act of the weekend. The band recently had their gear stolen after a gig in Detroit (a crowd-funding campaign to get them back on their feet has already raised over $30k) but was able to backline gear from the headliners and didn’t seem to miss a beat. Cerebral guitarist Justin Reckamp shined on some searing solos, but it was Mungion’s group improvisation and intricate compositions, especially on the set-closing “One Night Stan,” that set them apart.
Moves at Midnight
After these two powerful performances, it was finally time for Friday’s headliners—The Main Squeeze. Led by kimono-clad frontman Corey Frye and his charismatic vocals, The Main Squeeze plays a special blend of soul and funk with a rock-and-roll edge, becoming a true force to be reckoned with. At any given moment, Frye’s crooning vocals were reminiscent of Jamiroquai or James Brown, though when guitarist Max Mewman or drummer Reuben Gingrich let loose, one might have have been reminded of Rage Against the Machine with their hard-hitting solos. Friday’s set saw the band play almost continually through fan-favorite originals like “I’ll Take Another,” “Dr. Funk,” and “ WWC,” though it was a cover of Tears For Fears’ hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that got the venue truly fired up.
The Main Squeeze, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”
After a sunny Saturday on the water for the many attendees who were camped nearby, the music started back up on day two with evening sets from Colorado locals Jus’ Sayin’ and Cycles. The neo-soul stylings of Jus’ Sayin’ were a welcome way to start the day, with the local five-piece laying out some solid grooves to kick off Saturday’s festivities. The psychedelic trio Cycles got a thriving fanbase out early, with bassist Tucker McClung taking gold for best facial expressions and stage presence of the weekend. Their set wandered into spacey uncharted territory, per usual, but came together for a buttoned-up “Chapanga” to close.
Cycles’ set at Canyon Jam, courtesy of The Space Fish
Next was the sleeper highlight of the weekend, fusion trio Organ Freeman. Though their comical name and song titles (for example, “Go by Richard, Not by Dick”) would suggest a light-hearted approach, once the three musicians got on stage, they were all business. All three musicians—Rob Humphreys on drums, Trevor Steer on organ/bass, and Erik Carlson on guitar—are top-tier players that offer head-scratching dynamics from their time together at the Musicians Institute of Hollywood. The band has a take on the organ jazz trio all their own, effortlessly jumping between tempos and time-signatures in creative ways not easily envisioned or mimicked.
SETLIST: Organ Freeman | Mishawaka Amphitheater | Bellvue, CO | 9/9/17
Set: Verve, Don’t eat your fingers, We’re on our way, You said you quit drinkin’, Only if you meant it, byrd vs fish, Putin and I get along fantastic, Go by Richard not by dick, Long live the king
A dialed-in set from Aqueous was next—yet another band on the bill that has jumped from up-in-comer to festival staple over the last few years. The four-piece brought a welcoming vibe, maintaining a progressive foundation while also diving into traces of ska and reggae that kept the music jubilant. In an unexpected change of pace, the band dropped into a beautiful rendition of the Beatles’ tune “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Their extended version of the catchy “Kitty Chaser (explosions)” was the best jam of the weekend, diving into fifteen minutes of glitchy improvisation before circling back to the hook.
SETLIST: Aqueous | Canyon Jam | Mishawaka Amphitheater | Bellvue, CO | 9/9/17
Set: Origami, Weight of the Word, Second Sight, King for a Day, Strawberry Fields > Kitty Chaser
Aqueous’ set at Canyon Jam, courtesy of The Space Fish
Closing out the festival with a two-hour headlining slot was Arizona’s Spafford. Fresh off the release of a new album, Abaculus, which is a single-track studio exploration, it’s easy to see why the band has gained a reputation as incredible listeners. Drummer Cameron Laforest and bassist Jordan Fairless work together to create a backbone ready to bend any moment frontman Brian Moss’ guitar deems necessary. Spafford grabbed their audience’s attention immediately with their opening number, their debut of a cover of JJ Cale’s “After Midnight.” However, the group was at its best when they were exploring new territory on deep originals, like “Windmill,” and seamlessly jamming through tunes with their characteristic, tight transitions.
SETLIST: Spafford | Canyon Jam | Mishawaka Amphitheater | Bellvue, CO | 9/9/17
Set One: After Midnight (JJ Cale cover, first time played) > Walls > All My Friends > Bee Jam > Electric Taco Stand > Alternate Ending > Electric Taco Stand, Windmill, Sweet, Backdoor Funk, Galisteo Way
Spafford, “Electric Taco Stand” > “Alternate Ending”
All in all, Canyon Jam’s debut was a well-received hit in one of the country’s top markets for jam music. By combining the passion of national acts still climbing the ladder with the natural beauty of Colorado, Canyon Jam is sure to be an event eagerly marked on calendars for years to come. Below, you can check out by-band galleries of photos from Canyon Jam day two courtesy of photographer Bill McAlaine.
Keep an eye out for brand new music from all of the exciting acts on the bill in the near future. Organ Freeman just announced a brand new album, Respect My Art, which features members of Vulfpeck and Turkuaz. Spafford just released their all-improv odyssey, Abaculus: An Improvisational Experience, and Aqueous just released their complex new single “Weight of the Word” from their own upcoming studio album. You can also catch each of these bands on tour this fall. For more information on upcoming dates, or to purchase tickets, head to the bands’ websites (Spafford; The Main Squeeze; Aqueous; Organ Freeman; Mungion; Cycles; Jus Sayin).