On Tour With Spiritual Rez (Part 2), Winter Park, FL 3/12/4

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Spiritual Rez continued their Florida swing on a Wednesday night in Winter Park, a historic, mossy, mansion-laden city just north of Orlando in the urban sprawl of Central Florida. The venue, Odin’s Den, a dim beer bar with two pool tables and a wrap-around bar, filled up with youthful reggae-rock devotees, bar flies caught in the action, and a swarm of hometown friends of front man and native son, Toft Willingham.

Willingham grew up just a mile or so from Odin’s Den, though it wouldn’t be until he attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and cofounded Spiritual Rez that he would walk through its doors. “When we went on our first tour in 2006, I called (the owner) who was a friend of a friend and said, ‘Hey, can you get us in?’” Willingham says. “We played, it was packed, it was this epic dance party, this family reunion. And so it’s been that every year for eight years.”

The opening band, 69 Fingers, an Orlando-based hardcore-punk-ska group, readied the crowd for Spiritual Rez, who took the stage beneath a banner of the cover of their new album, Apocalypse Whenever. Towering, hirsute bass player Jesse Shaternick plucked out the bass line of a Rez throwback, “Deductible Dub.” Drummer Ian “Meat” Miller built the sound on his cymbals and, as the band crashed into the unhurried reggae groove, the crowd hit the dance floor.

“Deductible Dub” comes off the band’s first studio album, Rising in the East, 2006 which they were promoting on their first trip through Central Florida. Back then the band had a different lineup and a different aesthetic. “When we first started, we were really trying to be like Bob Marley’s band … with a very big ensemble,” Shaternick says, referencing their former percussionist and female backup vocalists. “We were really trying to have a roots reggae sound in the very beginning. Very purist.”

Though Spiritual Rez still taps into their roots reggae beginnings, they’ve left the Marley arrangements back in the 2000’s. Their next song, “Baby Mama,” showed the funk-rock side that has come through in the evolution of the band, with the horn section going through their dance steps and the song concluding in a tight, synchronized, arpeggiated outro. By the third song – an up-tempo, rocking “Bring It On” from their current album – the progression had come to present-day. The band traded solos over the chords, and Willingham, his long blonde hair dancing across his shoulders, threw the crowd’s attention to the cast of musicians he’d brought to town.

Muhamed Araki of Sudan stepped out with a melodica and demonstrated his circular-breathing skills as he held one note for an impossibly long time before stuffing the instrument between his knees and ripping into a keytar solo. As “Bring It On” concluded, they kept up the tempo into “Alone Again,” an introspective number the band’s core three – Willingham, Miller and Shaternick – have been playing for a decade. “I’m alone again / Where nothing can go wrong,” Willingham sang. “Without a care-care in the world.” Lead guitarist Rob O’Block stepped up played a series of spidery, sinewy licks overtop the band building and increasing their intensity with each bar until the music erupted, each player riffing and improvising and the audience jumping in their sneakers.

Though O’Block, a studio musician in Nashville, has the guitar chops to step out front at any time, “Toft (Willingham) is definitely the front man,” O’Block says. “He’s running the show up there…. So I do pretty much whatever they want me to do.”

With a few flicks of his drumsticks Miller led the band straight into “African Jam,” a deep-jungle groove with calypso accents. While the crowd gyrated before the band, Willingham and O’Block stepped aside to let Miller take over with a drum solo. His sticks flew over his drumheads and he pounded with the force of a drum circle. Shaternick textured the solo with unrelenting bass bombs, the pair exhibiting a rhythmic chemistry that started in the late 90’s as teenagers in Hawaii. That rhythm, plus Willingham’s vocals and energy and a ready set of musical talent harvested from Berklee, has fueled Spiritual Rez from the beginning.

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The band’s newest member, Clay Lyons, saxophonist, recognizes the individual attributes that have served the band’s core over the years. “(Willingham) has these great vocals and great voice that’s really unique. It’s got a great edge to it but it’s still really warm and expressive and dynamic,” Lyons says. “‘Meat’ Miller is just a monster on the drums. He’s got this raw fervor and energy that just fuels the band. And (Shaternick)’s great. He’s got so many tasty bass lines. He’s a great soloist and accompanist, which is hard to come across in a bass player.” At the same time, Lyons, who has an improvisational jazz background, relishes the musical freedom of the band, saying, “I’m drawn to … the stylistic eclecticism of the group. Everyone is bringing a different flavor into the big soup that is Spiritual Rez.”

The dance floor cleared out a little when Spiritural Rez launched into their so-called “apocalyptic love song,” “Let’s Go out with a Bang.” This crowd was interested in dancing, and the band pulled them back in with a series of up-tempo tunes that kept them engaged through the end of the show.

Spiritual Rez, and Willingham in particular, played with elevated energy that night in Odin’s Den. “When I play a mile from where I grew up, a mile from the house I lived in from birth till I was 18 years old, it’s inspiring,” Willingham says.

Still, the evening was bittersweet. After a 12-year run, Odin’s Den would close its doors for good five days later. A generation that spent its twenties at the pub has moved into their professional lives, and a profusion of new craft beer bars and venues in Central Florida proved too much competition for the Winter Park institution. Fans will still have eight years of packed Spiritual Rez shows to think back on.

“Odin’s Den was a big part of our growth in the southeast,” Willingham says. “It gave us a stronghold.”

Spiritual Rez, on the other hand, seems to harbor an unbreakable determination to put out new music and new videos, go on tour and play new gigs. “I think Spiritual Rez is never going to die,” says O’Block. “If this were an easy band to kill, they’d be dead already. I think they’re going to keep truckin’ on.”

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