Boston-based reggae rockers Spiritual Rez released their latest album Apocalypse Whenever on February 15, and as is their custom, immediately set out on tour. For the last month they’ve been traversing the East Coast in a long white van filled with eight people – seven musicians plus Doug the Merch Guy – hauling a trailer out of icy New England and moving south one tour stop at a time. By early March they’d crossed into the Sunshine State, set to play a dozen shows in two weeks.
“When we break the Florida state line, we’re always very happy,” said drummer Ian “Meat” Miller. “Coming back here is almost like a homecoming for me.” Over eight years of touring, Spiritual Rez has built a following in Florida, also the home state of lead singer Toft Willingham. The three original members still with the band – Miller, Willingham, and bass player Jesse Shaternick – can recall the look and smell of the band in its early days.
“We started in a twelve-passenger old church van that we bought. At the time there were 10 people in the band and crew,” Miller said. “We actually came down here to Florida in the summer with no air conditioning. We were all hippies and we all smelled bad.”
Judging from the new album, air conditioning and hygiene aren’t the only improvements the band has made. Apocalypse Whenever evinces a higher level of maturity in songwriting, musicianship and production than any of their previous recordings. To master the album they brought in Howie Weinberg, whose mastering credits include literally dozens of huge names, from Public Enemy to Nirvana to Ben Folds Five. From the opening track, “Man’s Hands,” which fades in on interweaving horn lines and crescendos into an earthy, reverberating rhythm, it’s clear that Apocalypse Whenever has a next-level luster and sheen. Willingham’s percussive, growling initial query, “Why do we wake up in the morning / Just to work late into the evening?” announces a speaker who for the rest of the album will attempt to reconcile a deeply flawed society with the redemption of love, togetherness, synchronicity and musical escape. The middle ground Spiritual Rez lands on, it seems, is acceptance.
“The end is nigh, my friend,” Miller said. “Whether it’s in 100 million years, or 10 seconds from now. So for us, why not have a good time? Embody some humor. And try and influence as much positivity as we can through the music we create.”
Even though the concept of impending annihilation propels the album forward, by coming to terms with universal mortality, Spiritual Rez finds ample opportunities to inject a lightheartedness characteristic of their live shows.
When Spiritual Rez plays live, the fourth wall between the band and the audience seems to fall away, as evidenced in their three day run along the Atlantic Coast, March 7-9. They began in New Smyrna Beach, a low-key surfing destination with a quaint main strip of surf shops, bars and restaurants that lead out to the ocean, just south of Daytona Beach. Bike Week was in full swing, and as the late-night show neared, the venue, Om Bar, began to fill with bikers in black leather, vacationers in blue jeans and polo shirts, and a large contingent of fans traveling from the Greater Orlando area.
With a name like “Om Bar,” you’d think the place would promote stillness and serenity, with incense burning and idols along the walls. Save for a painting of Ganesh looming over the stage, however, the Om Bar could’ve been any back-road dive bar in the south. It got smoky; it got sticky; it got rowdy. The band seemed to feed off the energy circulating through the packed house as they teased out an extended version of their marijuana anthem, “Sippy.” Trombone player Quinn Carson and saxophonist Clay Lyons played dueling horn lines over the rhythm section’s funky groove. Willingham laid into the vocals, traded guitar solos with lead guitarist Rob O’Block, and danced and gestured toward the young crowd swaying a few feet in front of him.
When the band played “Who’s Gonna Come,” one of the new album’s strongest tracks, an up-tempo ska number with quick, synchronized melodic lines and a metal-rock interlude, the audience responded with hyper-active dancing, especially during the blaring horn lines that seemed to run like a surge through the crowd.
Carson has only played trombone with Spiritual Rez for 15 months, but he’s already performed in over 100 shows and has gained an appreciation for their improvisational style. “They allow each member of the band to express themselves within their music every night,” Carson said. “We have a chance to vocalize how we would approach each song, whereas in another band, it might be a more closed format. But with Spiritual Rez, you get a lot of chances to make the music better with your ideas. Joining Spiritual Rez has been a really freeing, really awesome, really cool opportunity.”
After New Smyrna Beach, the band traveled a couple hours south to Jupiter, a wealthy, ocean-side community just west of Lake Okeechobee. They set up at Guanabanas, a tropical restaurant, bar and music venue on State Road A1A with water access to the Jupiter Inlet. The expansive establishment featured rock waterfalls, lush flora, and numerous alcoves cut along stone paths into the elephant ears, staghorn ferns, palms and other exotic trees. Being in a vastly warmer latitude from Boston, the band thawed out on the waterside boardwalk sipping pina coladas under a warm sky as paddle boarders, speed boats and pontoons idled by.
When the sun had set, the lights shone through the palm tree canopy and the band mounted the tiki stage. They opened with “Bring It On,” a mellow rock song dripping with irony, as Willingham’s gruff vocals and survivalist lyrics contrast the smooth, even cheerful, melody. “I got my second amendment / stockpiled in my basement,” Willingham sang with a wink and a nod. Keyboard player Muhammed Araki stepped out from behind his rack of keyboards and cued up his keytar, playing an intricate, funky solo with his right hand and bending the pitches on the modulator with his left.
Araki’s keytar solos have become somewhat of a trademark of Spiritual Rez. The Sudanese player had always admired the guitar, he said, for the way it puts the musician face-to-face with the audience, and wished he could get out from behind his keyboards. When he first saw a keytar, he said, “This is my instrument. And now I have a great relationship with it.”
Araki’s keytar was on display the next day, a few cities back up A1A at Captain Hiram’s in Sebastian. Similar to Guanabana’s, Captain Hiram’s is a sprawling beach bar on the water with several docks. Motorcycles lined the front entrance. Inside a gathering of all ages, from young children with their mothers and fathers to the retired class of south Florida, and of all stripes – bikers, beach-goers, reggae warriors – lounged under blue skies.
The band entertained a relaxed and cheerful crowd consuming signature rum buckets, munching on sea food, and kicking their shoes off to dance in the sand. They closed with “Stevie Got Arrested,” a hard-driving rock tune forged by Willingham from a real event. During the show Araki had delighted the crowd with his keytar – even pairing it at one point with a melodica and performing an impromptu call-and-response with himself between the two instruments – so Willingham called him up for an encore solo. Araki’s hands blazed over the keys. The crowd cheered. The funky voice rang out until it rang so hard the sound system sputtered and died.
“He broke it!” Willingham shouted, his microphone dead. “Good night!”
Stay tuned for more coverage of the Spiritual Rez Apocalypse Whenever tour, including Willingham’s Winter Park homecoming show and a three-day run at the Green Parrot in Key West.