Spotlight: Chris Harford & Band of Changes
photo by Jenny Lee Baniszewski
“Perseverance brings good fortune”
– I Ching (Book of Changes)
“Flotation is groovy and easy”
– Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsys
Chris Harford smiles at the notion of pairing a 3,000-year-old Chinese text alongside the greatest guitar player of all-time. He drew the name of his long-running Band of Changes by hybridizing those two enduring founts of wisdom, and it’s an apt moniker for his rotating project. The only constants in the lineup are Harford and change itself.
“He’s a Central Jersey institution of sorts,” says Scott Metzger, guitarist for WOLF! and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Metzger met Harford as a teenager two decades ago and, shortly after, became one of the many musicians to hold membership in Band of Changes—Russo, Dean and Gene Ween, Ween/JRAD bassist Dave Dreiwitz, Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley and Robbie “Seahag” Mangano often shuttle through the revolving door.
“He’s a guiding light,” Metzger says. “Everybody plays with Chris.”
Harford is an artist of various mediums. A painter and photographer as well as guitarist and songwriter, he’s a master of finding connectivity in ostensibly disparate sources of inspiration and is as equally comfortable covering Lana Del Rey and Neil Young as he is collaborating with Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon. His solo career includes an early major-label deal and critical toasts alongside a quietly proceeding catalog spanning 20 years, available on his website for any price one is willing to pay—including nothing at all.
His Band of Changes functions with a correspondingly loose principle of the unknown until its known. Harford considers the availability and compatibility of personnel for a performance and leaves the in-the-moment mood of the room to determine the rest. Lineups fluctuate. Setlists are essentially nonexistent, if not pointless. Harford thrives on cultivating this sensation of perpetual discovery.
As JRAD have grown into a national attraction, Harford has also reached a new generation of fans weaned on classic rock and jamband music. Russo invited Harford to sit in with JRAD during an action-packed Brooklyn Bowl run in late 2016 and brought him out to showcase his music at The Capitol Theatre’s Garcia’s club space during their stand at the Port Chester, N.Y.-based institution this past January. Russo, Metzger and Dreiwitz have also formed the core of some of Harford’s high-profile backing bands during a number of New York and New Jersey engagements and, this summer, the trio double dipped with JRAD and Band of Changes at both Scranton, Pa.’s Peach Music Festival and Arrington, Va.’s LOCKN’. Russo told Harford he wanted to rock. “I know what that means when he says that,” says Harford.
With his own deft ability to vacillate between mediums and styles, Harford recruits players who are capable of shifting from electric and heavy to acoustic and reserved—and anywhere in the space between—without any hesitation, or notice.
“Playing with [Russo, Metzger and Dreiwitz] is like being in the ocean,” says Harford. “We can go anywhere and it’s like liquid: fluid, flowing, transparent, moving and powerful.”
Metzger agrees. “Chris is very encouraging of the guys in the band allowing where they are at as musicians to influence how they play the songs. In some ways, it’s the most improvising band that I play with, or have ever played with.”
Yet, some outside factors inevitably tilt Band of Changes’ performances certain ways. Harford says he’s inclined to steer the repertoire of a festival set according to the length of time onstage and where his set falls on the schedule. A 45-minute sunny afternoon at LOCKN’ isn’t the same as late- night merriment at the Peach. Either way, it’s always evolving up to and through when they set foot onstage.
“Absolutely a bonus, and part of the modus operandi, for sure,” says Harford, of the spirit of unpredictability.
Harford checked out Band of Changes’ spot on the LOCKN’ docket ahead of time and immediately noticed that he was a few slots before a personal favorite, George Clinton and P-Funk. “It is a great honor to share that [day] with them, to be included in such a thing,” Harford says. “To be among this tribe is super fun.”
Harford’s latest release is 2016’s Horn of Plenty, a nine- song collection tracked live at Room 17 Recording Studio in Brooklyn. Metzger, Russo and Dreiwitz were among the dozen players on the album, and Harford says he has tentative plans to record with them again soon. “These guys are getting so busy now and so popular that it’s more challenging to get a commitment, understandably.”
The future floats in and out of focus, groovy and easy; the art of knowing it is better not to know. Spontaneous shows are sure to bubble up out of nowhere—combinations of bandmates will coalesce in memorable momentary ensembles of freedom and fun, and then be gone until the next time or never again. Band of Changes will persevere.
“Put him up against anybody and his material holds its own on an emotional level,” says Metzger. “And knowing that you are trusted by a bandleader is as crucial. Chris’ respect for his band is on a rare level. That’s why so many of us look forward to playing with him.”
This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.