Virginia is rich with many strong blues bands and among the very best is a four-piece group based out of Charlottesville. The Jon Spear Band is named for its founder and one of the two outstanding guitarists in the band – the other being Dara James who delivers most of the vocals. The remaining two members are bass player Andy Burdetsky and drummer John Stubblefield.
The band is extremely tight. They’ve performed hundreds of shows together and recorded three albums and like long time friends they can tell with a mere nod of the head what the other players are thinking and they can turn a song on a dime (or a quarter, but more about that later) and take an audience from cold to red hot in a matter of seconds.
Even with a light crowd in attendance at Richmond’s Tin Pan, the JSB pulled out all the stops from their opening number and before long had people dancing in the aisles and were the recipient of a couple of standing ovations.
They started off with Bullets which got the crowd excited before moving into Too Much Family which featured the first time that Spear and James traded off hot guitar licks. This is a trademark of the JSB and the two switched back and forth from rhythm to lead guitar without missing a beat.
Spear and James were able to take such risks because of the rhythm section of Burdetsky and Stubblefield. Simply put, John Stubblefield is the most underrated blues drummer working in Virginia. Not only does he play well, he does so without drawing focus but still creates exciting sounds. His performance may seem low key, but his playing is high energy.
Burdetsky is an entertainer through and through. He only steps up to the microphone to add occasional harmony vocals or to address the audience. However, while playing, he is incredibly animated, moving his body with the grace of a Cirque de Soliel contortionist. Together these two create such a deep pocket that James and Spear are able to go off on flights of fancy that electrify the crowd.
The band next moved into Up The Line and then Noah’s Blues, an original song about the blues surrounding the environment. From there they jammed on Beginner At The Blues.
While it may be blues music that brought them their following, the JSB is adept at other genres as well. Sometimes they slip into the rock category, but for Geographical Cure, they became more of a Caribbean band. I swear, if they had congas and a steel drum, this would become a Jimmy Buffet style hit.
From there, they returned to the blues with a smoking version of Wintertime and some blistering guitar work that had the audience screaming their appreciation. They received their first standing ovation after the number.
After that came a song Burdetsky wrote that became the title track on their most recent album, Hot Sauce. Speaking of Hot Sauce, they delivered an up tempo dance number that started out as an off-color joke, Hit The Quarter. No, I’m not going to tell it to you now, this is a family blog. You can still enjoy their version as it has nothing to do with the joke and it’s fun to boogie to.
One more song from that recent album, Bottom Of The Bottle, followed. With a title like that, you know it’s pure blues all the way. Next up was Mean Mean Woman, a song Spear wrote back in 1974. Gerald Ford was President and we were going to work our way out of economic malaise by wearing buttons that reminded us to Whip Inflation Now. I don’t remember what those buttons cost, but I probably couldn’t afford one back then.
Mean Mean Woman is a great song and one of my favorites from the JSB. On the surface it’s about a bad relationship and how many of us have endured one of those. If you listen a little deeper however, it becomes a song about trying to come out from under the thumb of addiction. That’s never easy to do, and this song really drives that point home.
Just to give you a chance to hear it for yourself, I’ve put in a link to a version of the song the band recorded live in Charlottesville. Take a few minutes and see if you agree with my assessment.
From there the band invited some audience participation with Too Much Stuff and then James channeled the late Stevie Ray Vaughan on a blistering version of Tin Pan Alley. They closed with a funky version of Black Cat Bone to another standing ovation before dropping an encore of Yellow Moon.
The audience milled around the guys for about 20 minutes talking to them about their experience seeing the band, many for the first time. The Jon Spear Band left everything they had on the stage and everyone who saw it, appreciated their effort.
I forget which album they said it on, but it’s still true today, Live Music IS Better. Especially when it’s being played by the Jon Spear Band.