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Tuesday, Sep 2, 2008
A backstage chat at Lollapalooza with Blues Traveler co-founder Chan Kinchla. Words by Chris Catania and pictures by Colleen Catania.

Over the last 20 years Blues Traveler has gone from underground jam-band stalwarts to mainstream multi-platinum success including a Grammy for 1994’s single “Run Around”. In that two decade span, they’ve also founded a festival (H.O.A.R.D.), weathered the death of a band mate and battled other personal issues while still continuing to release music and tour. 


And in 2008 the New Jersey quintet is on a new label (Verve Forecast) and has recorded their latest album in a different way than previous albums. This time the plan on their ninth studio album North Hollywood Shootout released August 26th was to capture what rose the band up from the East Coast underground jam-band scene back when guitarist Chan Kinchla and John Topper (vocals/harmonica) founded the group in 1991. As the title suggests, the effort to harness Blues Traveler’s live ferocious mixing of improvosational blues, rock and singer-songwriter swagger was a new kind of challenge that forced the band to adapt a songwriting style they hadn’t explored before.
 
An hour before their Lollapalooza set on August 3rd, I had a brief chat with Chan Kinchla who took me on a tour through the new album, as he explained the difficulties of working with the new recording and touring approach, what it was like having Bruce Willis contribute and how it feels to play Lollapalooza 2008 as one of the few jammier bands on the bill.


We sat down at a table in the artist lounge backstage with the Chicago skyline as our backdrop as Chan took a swig from his drink, told me that he was excited, smiled a big hearty grin and unexpectedly offered up the interview’s first question jokingly asking who had been my most annoying interview so far over the festival weekend.


I dodged the question for obvious reasons. Kinchla smiled again and confidently assured me that I “hadn’t seen nothing yet.”


Luckily, he didn’t keep up his promise. And our chat was far from annoying.


How does North Hollywood Shootout capture the live show more than previous albums?
Well, with North Hollywood Shootout we wanted to try something different since last couple of records we kind of got in this singer songwriter mentality where we really worked on arrangements, trying to get the songs in a very tight form and then go in the studio and record them like that.


Then we realized that when we play live there’s so many things we sort of stumble on that we weren’t really getting on to our albums. So we decided to switch it up and try to do a lot more jamming which we did in the beginning of the record. Just playing, having some drinks and getting these cool little grooves going. Basically, we kept the parts that we liked, and sometimes we would take that part and make it the foundation for the a song or stretch it out and groove longer on it.


It took a lot of listening back for a long time and [producer] Dave Bianco (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Ozzy Osbourne, Mick Jagger and Teenage Fanclub) helped us find what was really good.  We ended up having a lot more grooving on an album that we’ve ever had before and the recording process was really different for us, too.


How hard was it trying to capture that live element?
In the past we had really tried to separate playing live from recording in the studio. When you’re playing live you’re improvising, there’s people there in front of you and so much is going on onstage and in the crowd and new things happen every night. When you recording in the studio you’re going for a more precise goal, trying to get things exactly the way you want them. I think we were really trying to wed those two ideas together and I think we did a really good job and I’m looking forward to doing the same thing on the next record.  We had a lot of fun recording like this album because songs would come out of thin air and we could play in a stream of conscience. The technology we have today also allows us to record like this. You couldn’t really do this in the past.


What’s most exciting for you guys about the new album and playing live this summer?
Since we’ve recorded it with a live focus all the songs are really playing great live and the crowds are loving them. People are getting up and cheering for new songs they’ve never even heard before. That’s really exciting because sometimes when you make a record, release it and then six months down the road there’s only like one or two songs that make it into the live set rotation. With this album we already have six or seven. I can’t wait until people have the album and they actually recognize them.


What are some of your favorites so far?
I’ve really been enjoying “How I Remember It”, and the first single “You, Me and Everything” and (pauses) “Beacons”. Sorry about that, I’m having a hard time remember the names of the songs because we always call them something stupid in the studio when we’re recoding them.


You have Bruce Willis on the album doing a spoken word blues rant on the last track “Free Willis”. How’d that come together?
Bruce has been a friend of ours for a long time and he sat in with us. John Topper and [Bruce] are good friends.  They’re were hanging out and joking around and came up with this idea.  That song is a live blues jam. We just played for 20 minutes and then Dave took all the best pieces and college them all together. Then Bruce came down, smoked a lot of pot, and then free-formed over the our jams. It was a fun experiment to try something a little different.


Is Bruce going to be a part of the live show?
Hey, if Bruce ever shows up, you bet your ass we’ll do it!


You guys have had some lineup changes over the years. How has it been working with those changes?
Well, since Bobby died we’ve had Tad in the band, my brother for eight years and the first five years of that was really learning how to build the band back up again and how to stay out of the way. We really feel we’re hitting our stride with this lineup. We’re able to relax and just play. It’s a lot of fun.


This is your second time playing Lollapalooza since you played in 2006.
Festivals are just a total crap shoot. You don’t have any sound check. You don’t know how you line up is going to play with the crowd, so you have to just throw your hands up and see what happens. It’s kind of nerve racking because you don’t have control over your own show. The most important thing is just to go up there and have fun, because the reality is that something will go wrong. You have to just roll with the punches. 


We love playing in Chicago because we have a lot of fans here and I’m really looking forward to playing. Lolla has an alternative slant and the line-up especially. We’re one of the only jammier bands, which might actually work for us because it’ll be something different for the fans.  There are probably a lot of alterny kids out there who have never heard us so it should be fun. We’ll be sure to bring the rock for them.


Now that was a promise that Kinchla and Blues Traveler kept as they fired rapid fire shots from Shootout while slipping in a few crowd favorites and multiplatinum hits.


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Thursday, Aug 21, 2008
Words and pictures by Thomas Hauner.

I’m not sure what moment in a singer’s development triggers the jettisoning of one’s inbred voice for a contrived, crossbred, and assumed vocal style. They pretend to sing like someone they’re not. Or do they? Maybe they’re actually just conjuring up a past life or an endured yet unsettling emotion that’s inexpressible in their current method of singing and must be articulated. You can probably guess that Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson is this type of songwriter. In the style of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, Robinson eschews perfect pitch and lacquered tones for an earnestly distraught and wounded sound. And the informal setting of Joe’s Pub provided an intimate setting to absorb his distinctly raw playing.


Robinson’s recent eponymous release was partially overshadowed by collaborators Chris Taylor and Chris Bear of Grizzly Bear and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. But this set—debuting his new backup band “The Family Robinson”—was entirely his own. Carrying a dejected inertia, “Buriedfed” was sullen but with hints of revival while “There Will Be Mud” was the most rousing of the night. Despite his youthful appearance and exuberance onstage (he warned the audience that the new band was certain to fuck up) his weathered voice exudes age. Only “Someday” sounded lyrically adolescent, though Robinson did seem a bit scatterbrained, taking hours to get set and switch guitars between songs. But his uncanny synthesis of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Langhorne Slim, and Josh Ritter by being at once familiar and new is intriguing—regardless of his downtrodden vocal source.



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Tuesday, Aug 19, 2008
Words and pictures by Thomas Hauner.

Ben Harper once said, “I refuse to age disgracefully in rock ‘n’ roll.” It’s an apt mantra that aging rockers should adhere to for the sake of their music, but mostly themselves.  Mike Gordon, former bassist of reunion-rumored Phish, and touring in support of his latest release The Green Sparrow, did bring his musical aestheticism with grace and humility to a packed Highline Ballroom last Wednesday night. But his aging fans should give it equal credence because no matter how yuppified a Phish-head can become, their nostalgic nights out are all too predictable.


Just as Gordon’s bluegrass ballads followed a tried and true formula—so much so that the only variable was the number of players that joined him as he progressed through that portion of the program—so too did his faithful: Weathered Birkenstocks, homemade purses and bags, and apoplectic dance. 


 


They did have some reason to gyrate, though. “Dig Further Down” and “Traveled Too Far”, both from the new album, weren’t too bass heavy, but exuded that light funk Phish could easily toy with. Arguably the best song of the night was “Takin’ it to the Streets” with keyboardist Tom Cleary thankfully singing lead.  (Gordon’s voice has always been intrinsically goofy and awkward. He sings with exuberance but it just sounds like his sinus is the vocalist.)  A close second was the C+C Music Factory cover, “Things that make you go Hmmm”, showing some alacrity on Gordon’s part. That guitarist Scott Murawski played Trey Anastasio’s signature guitar (which is only made by Phish’ audio engineer/guitar-tech/luthier Paul Languedoc) emphasized the show as a diluted recapitulation of Phish’s best, and worst, characteristics.



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Friday, Aug 15, 2008
Word and pictures by Mehan Jayasuriya.

I used to think that only an act of God could keep me from a Radiohead show. Well, much to my surprise, this past spring, God decided to call my bluff on that one. So it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I approached Radiohead’s performance this past Tuesday in the Philadelphia suburb of Camden, New Jersey – a makeup date, of sorts, for the washout this past May. This time around, I took every precaution. I checked the weather forecast compulsively. I packed a GPS-equipped phone, just in case I got lost on the way. I double-checked to make sure my name was on the guest list. I left for the venue earlier than was probably advisable.


Despite all of these precautions, just about everything that could go wrong en route to the venue went wrong. I took a wrong turn and got lost in the suburbs of Camden. My GPS-equipped phone ran out of batteries. The car charger for the phone didn’t work. None of the gas station attendants seemed to know where the Susquehanna Bank Center was (not that I can blame them, what, with a catchy name like that). I eventually made my way to Camden, only to get lost yet again in that city’s vast, spooky underbelly. The setting sun completely obscured my view of the road. My girlfriend told me to settle down, repeatedly.


Eventually, I made my way into downtown Camden, where I asked a police officer for directions. He shot me a befuddled look before pointing directly across the street from where he stood.


As for the show, well, there’s not much left to say about the In Rainbows tour and even less left to say about Radiohead as a live act. As always, the five lads from Oxfordshire were on point, crafting a career-spanning set-list and attacking it with both passion and precision. And as you’ve surely heard countless times by now, the band’s LED light spectacle was, for lack of a better word, spectacular. Standing there in awe of the music and lights and amazed that I had made it to the show at all, I couldn’t help but identify with the band’s choice of a closing number. As Thom Yorke’s disembodied voice rang through a sampler, the LED spires scrolled in tandem: “EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE”.



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Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner.

A balmy Tuesday night in New York’s Central Park was the near perfect setting to take in the sonorous melodies and counterculture nostalgia of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Playing in their 40th year together, the trio (this time sans the erratic Neil Young) serenaded the crowd with the more equanimous side of their repertoire during the first set. Breezy and reminiscent, “Marrakesh Express” instantly entranced the audience with patchouli-laden thoughts of seminal rock festivals. David Crosby gingerly sang backup–appearing either stoic or stoned–while Graham Nash paced Persian rugs barefooted and Stephen Stills basked in the glow of his sunburst Gibson at sunset. Other classics like “Southern Cross” and “Long Time Gone” quickly followed.


The second set, opening with the earnest a cappella ballad “You Don’t Have to Cry”, showcased their trademark harmonies and more Stills-led electric rock. Equally known for their infamous anti-establishment and political commentary, “This is My Country” (written by Joel Rafael with backing vocals by Nash and Crosby) was the most biting socially conscious song of the night. Nash then thanked the crowd for listening to his solo performance—apparently the tune fell on less receptive ears at the D.C. show.


Though ostensibly political, the iconic Buffalo Springfield tune “For What It’s Worth” has instead evolved into a go-to group sing-along. It didn’t disappoint as the first encore. Rounding out their two and a half hour show, “Teach Your Children” was as fitting a bestowal to the younger concertgoers as it was a reprise for the older. And in plugging their appearance on The Colbert Report the next day, CSN united the generations too.



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