Wednesday, July 26, 2017 “Blues Traveler” appeared in Salem, Oregon at the “River Rock” music series. It was the final night of the 5th year and the first time that the event has ever sold out, demonstrating the band’s drawing power. The show was scheduled to start at 7:00 PM, when at 6:50PM “The Beth Willis Rock Duo,” appeared and played an entertaining 25 minute set consisting of a variety of tunes ranging from “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane to Fox and Gimbel’s hit for Roberta Flack, “Killing Me Softly.”
At 7:30 PM, “Blues Traveler” took the stage and began its set to a sold out crowd. “Blues Traveler” was celebrating its 30th year of performing, with a repertoire of 12 albums worth of material. The band opened with the Charlie Daniels Band’s 1979 hit, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” with John Popper on lead vocals and harmonica, Chan Kinchla (lead guitar), Brendon Hill, (drums), Tad Kinchla, (bass) and Ben Wilson (Keyboards). The quintet jammed for a few minutes and then after an abrupt ending they dove straight into “New York Prophesie” off 1993’s Save His Soul as Kinchla’s guitar played off of Popper’s harp.
“Love Is What I Got” by “Sublime” gave the band an opportunity to demonstrate that any song that they do succumbs to their style, making it more than a cover, as each member took a solo. Then Popper and Chan left the stage leaving Tad Kinchla heading up a 3 man group with lead bass, keys and drums, thumping out a raging version of “Sadly A Fiction” off 2001’s Bridge album, the first recorded after original bassist Bobby Sheehan’s accidental drug over dose death. After a few minutes of the lead bass trio, Popper and Kinchla returned to finish out the song. Their 1994 Grammy Award winning hit “Run-Around” was so familiar to the crowd that they sang verses with Popper, “Oh I like coffee and I like tea.” Popper announced that they had a new album coming out in the fall and then said, “this is off of an album from a few years ago,” as they began playing “U & Me & Everything.” Popper is a shadow of himself from the days of the H.O.R.D.E. festival 2 decades earlier. Not only has he shed nearly 200 lbs, but he shed his trademark harmonica vest for an attaché case filled with harmonicas instead, like Charlie Musselwhite.
Chan was leading the audience in clapping as Popper began to play and sing “Thinnest of Air” off 2003’s Truth Be Told album. Then he began fast picking with his fingers, dancing all over the fret board and body of the guitar, squeezing out familiar notes as his brother Tad moved in to face off with him as they jammed together. Wilson’s keyboards soared as he played with a vengeance, until Popper came back in and interwove his harmonica and singing into the jam. Blues Traveler led the pack of jam bands back in the 1990s when the “Grateful Dead” was still intact as the prototype of improvisational rock & roll bands.
Popper’s voice soared in its raspy tenor range, until he dove into his harmonica for an improvisational trademark solo, as they segued into “But Anyway” from their 1990 eponymous debut album. Kinchla’s raging lead guitar solo exploded, while Popper ruled as he traded harmonica gymnastics with vocal theatrics. Suddenly Ben Wilson the keyboard player took center stage with a keytar and squeezed out a range of sounds from his MIDI remote controller that I didn’t think were possible, producing some fascinating harmonics. He even walked into the crowd presenting his instrument as a communal catalyst to bridge the gap between audience and performer. Chan picked up a cowbell and began accompanying him with it as Wilson changed tunes and began playing a ferocious version of “Guns & Roses” “Sweet Child of Mine,” while Popper hung with his hands clutching the microphone stand and began swaying back and forth like Axl Rose. Chan and Ben played off each other as they took it to the limit, sonically, with the entire venue standing and dancing with abandon. Wilson concluded his performance by throwing his keytar in the air left stage and walking back to his stationary instruments, while Popper told the enthusiastically clapping crowd, “we love the crap out of you.”
Three band members left the stage and the audience sat back down as Popper began singing “Cara Let the Moon,” from 2012’s album Suzie Cracks the Whip with only Ben Wilson’s keyboard accompaniment. When the rest of the band came back on stage Chan Kinchla took center stage as he began “Carolina Blues,” from 1999’s Straight on till Morning, with a Hendrix like solo intro that lasted a couple of minutes, until once more the rest of the band joined in and jammed with joyous animation as they played off each other. Popper uses 14 different harmonicas during a performance and some don’t last more than one show, because of the intensity that he plays at. The interplay between guitar and harmonica creates a signature sound that is uniquely “Blues Traveler.”
By the time that everyone’s ears were ringing drummer Brenden Hill began a drum solo that led into “Hook,” the 2nd hit off their 1994 album, Four. The intensity that he played at demonstrated that he was still in prime form. After about 3 minutes Tad Kinchla, who is one of the most animated bass players that I’ve seen in a while danced while he plucked at his 5 string bass guitar. The heart pounding rhythm of drums and bass was complimented by Popper’s vocals as he sang, “suck it in suck it in suck it in if you’re Rin Tin Tin or Anne Boleyn…, while the audience sang along with familiarity, until the song ended and the band left the stage.
As soon as “Blues Traveler” exited the audience began chanting “one more song, one more song,” while they whistled, screamed, clapped and stomped until the band returned. Popper once again told the crowd that he loved them as he lit a cigarette, while drums and bass started a rhythm that Chan’s guitar began playing the melody of. The song was “Blow Up the Moon,” the title song off their 2015 release. Kinchla left the stage and walked into the audience holding up his guitar for individuals to play and once again become an extension of the band. When he returned to the stage the entire band jammed together and then segued into the conclusion of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” that they began their set with. This time when they exited the stage the sound system began playing “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,” from the Monty Python film, “Life of Brian,” as the crowd began filtering out with the sun set over the Willamette River behind the stage.
Review by Bob Gersztyn