[5 November 2013]
Once upon a time, Blues Traveler were a heavyweight title contender in the rising jam rock music scene. Late great concert promoter/impresario Bill Graham was their manager. Together they founded and headlined the HORDE Tour. Future arena-rock titans Phish opened for them in 1990. They had platinum albums and hit singles, helped foment the modern jam rock scene and at one time were one of the bigger names in popular music.
Blues Traveler’s catchy blend of blues, psychedelic rock, folk, soul and Southern rock was a vibrant formula that held cross over appeal for a wide audience. But the band’s fate was forever altered by the tumultuous summer of 1999. They seemed on top of the world when they headlined a benefit concert for the Rainforest Action Network at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater that June. It was a gala affair with guest appearances by luminaries like keyboardist Merl Saunders and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. But it turned out to be the end of an era. Charismatic vocalist/harmonica player John Popper fell ill the following week and needed emergency heart surgery for an artery blockage, forcing the band to cancel their annual Fourth of July show at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheater.
Then bassist Bobby Sheehan tragically passed away that August. It was a blow that was felt throughout the entire jam rock community. Government Mule guitarist Warren Haynes was clearly in mourning at the Berkeley Greek Theater that day, when he informed the crowd of Sheehan’s passing and delivered one of his bluesiest sets ever opening for Phil Lesh & Friends. Haynes was part of Lesh’s band that night and sang lead on an impassioned performance of “All Along the Watchtower”. It was an emotional nod to Sheehan’s untimely departure from this land of confusion. The RAN benefit in San Francisco had turned out to be his final show with Blues Traveler.
Sheehan had a dynamic attack on the bass that would be tough to replicate, but the surviving members of Blues Traveler felt he would have wanted them to continue. And so it was that Popper, drummer Brendan Hill and guitarist Chan Kinchla added Kinchla’s brother Tad as bassist, also taking on keyboardist Ben Wilson for the band’s 2.0 lineup. Blues Traveller’s popularity may never return to its 20th century peak, but the group has moved on like rock soldiers and have been grooving ever since. They drew a huge throng to an early afternoon set at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2010 that was one of the weekend’s top highlights, revealing a still large and appreciative fanbase.
Fast forward to 2013 on a Tuesday night at the El Rey Theater in LA’s mid-Wilshire region. The band is coming off a Saturday night show at San Francisco’s fabled Fillmore, but they still have plenty of energy for the last show of the tour’s west coast leg. Popper remains a premiere bluesman and virtuoso harmonica player, while the Kinchla brothers make for a dynamic duo on guitar and bass. The buffed out Chan Kinchla looks more like a middle linebacker than a guitarist, but his appearance seems to deliver his licks with more impact. He’s still one of the top players in the scene, laying down sharp chords and shredding melty hot blues licks throughout the evening.
The set featured material from the entirety of the band’s 25-year career, with newer material holding up well alongside classics. “Amber Awaits” is an early highlight from 2006’s Bastardos, with a floating feel good groove. “Things Are Looking Up” from last year’s Susie Cracks the Whip has a bluesier edge, yet finds the band continuing to build energy with a tight groove. Chan Kinchla’s crisp chords make a great platform for Popper’s ever-impressive harmonica solos.
A staple cover of Sublime’s “What I Got” keeps the good vibes going, a tune that fits Popper and Blues Traveler like a glove. The band delivers a surprise cover later in the set when guitarist Keith Brock joins in for a revved up take on ZZ Top’s “La Grange”, with Brock and Chan Kinchla tearing it up like gunslingers.
1994’s smash hit “Run-Around” is one of those infectious tunes that got overplayed back in the day. But it’s an undeniably catchy tune and it energized the crowd. “Beacons” from 2008’s North Hollywood Shootout finds Popper singing of being a beacon from yesteryear, but he’s one that still rocks with an edge. The band’s 1990 breakthrough song “But Anyway” remains a great dance groove, with Popper blowing harp for all he’s worth while. Popper’s harmonica and Kinchla’s lead guitar complement each other in masterful fashion, with Wilson also providing some strong work on piano to deepen the jam further.
“Carolina Blues” from 1997’s Straight on Till Morning is a peak moment as well. It’s one of the band’s hardest rocking tunes with a powerful bluesy groove that mesmerized the audience. It’s a song that personifies the band’s unique blend of heavy blues and catchy hooks. Popper and company distilled that essence into their 1994 smash hit “Hook”, a finely crafted meta-musical tune about coming up with a timeless musical hook. Popper’s virtuous harmonica chops are featured once more on the classic “Devil Went Down to Georgia” encore, another tune Blues Traveler make seem like their own.
The older Gen-X leaning crowd conjured a nostalgic ‘90s vibe to some degree, but the Blues Traveller’s festival appearances shows they can still work the larger crowds. The sharp playing at El Rey demonstrated a bluesy rock unit that is far from done.