Blues Traveler’s Traveler’s Blues, an album of covers from what the band calls the “American blues songbook” is a fun, Monte Cristo of an album.
Your more expansive diner menus will have a Monte Cristo sandwich somewhere. Essentially ham and cheese served on French toast, you’ll see it anywhere on the menu, from breakfast to lunch to brunch, with many establishments putting it in its own floating box, with the rest of the food items that defy categorization. Monte Cristo’s challenge isn’t one of flavor, but rather of concept. It’s tasty, but you don’t know when to order it.
Traveler’s Blues similarly has some conceptual confusion, none of which interferes with your enjoyment of the album. For instance, one of the album’s more interesting tracks is “Crazy,” the Gnarls Barkley hit, but not a track one associates with the great American blues songbook. Blues Traveler finds its own take, bringing it the tune back to its disco roots. The song doesn’t feature much, if any, of singer John Popper’s trademark speed harmonica, which feels a little strange, given it’s such a huge part of the band’s sound. However, the move works for the song, which has actress/singer/producer Rita Wilson providing some surprisingly smoky, soulful vocals, and guitarist John Scofield, who adds a low-key jazzy solo that’s tasteful, but doesn’t shift the track into another gear.
Which brings us to the next unusual aspect to the album: while it features guests on just about every track, the band usually doesn’t do much to spotlight them within the songs. So their cover of Freddie King’s “Tore Down,” here given a Bo Diddley beat, has singer Wendy Moten, who sweetens Popper’s vocals, but doesn’t get much of her own turn in the spotlight. Singer/guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram guests on “Ball and Chain,” the Big Mama Thornton tune famously covered by Janis Joplin. Ingram provides a deep vocal performance and the perfect blues licks you expect from him, but his sections often go toe-to-toe with Popper’s harmonica, making it tougher to appreciate Ingram.
The strongest guest performance comes from The War and Treaty on “Need Your Love So Bad,” a Little Willie John song covered by Fleetwood Mac, among others. It’s a low-key blues tune, but when husband and wife Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount come in, they take over the song, leaving no room for anything but their own intermingling vocals. When Popper’s singing finally returns, it feels a little like a third wheel crashing a date, even as he joins Blount and Trotter, the three voices wrapping around each other.
This is Blues Traveler’s 14th album, so you can appreciate their wanting to mix things up. And their fans probably don’t want an album of straight blues with Blues Traveler relegated to backing band status. But Blues Traveler is the type of band that’s never going to recede into the background, so it might have been interesting to see them give more space to their guests. And while some of the cover choices are unusual, the band makes every song work.
Blues Traveler is a polarizing group in that they have had huge commercial success and jam circuit fame, with not too much overlap between the two fan camps. But whichever side you’re on, if any, this is a tight, well-executed collection of tasty songs worth ordering any time of day, from any part of the menu.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Tore Down
– Ball and Chain
– Need Your Love So Bad
The Big Hit