THE IDEAL FESTIVAL DAY | NEW ORLEANS

The scene at Audubon Park on Saturday: sunny, mellow, friendly, laid-back, comfortable, relaxing. The music: surprisingly good. Both Blues Traveler and RatDog played inspired sets of music that brought smiles to many faces. After the festival, the Moore and More show at Tipitina's with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band continued the trend of music induced smiles.

I haven’t seen Blues Traveler since 1995. Since then, they’ve had a remarkably scrambled and tragic period of death, health scares, lackluster recordings, and somewhat aimless performances. They were wandering in the musical desert, and I lost interest in what they had to offer.

I am pleased to report that Saturday’s performance reveals Blues Traveler is still alive, functioning, and relevant. The addition of Ben Wilson on keys has provided the band a richer, fuller sound. John Popper has lost an amazing amount of weight and played his harp(s) with ferocious intensity (especially during a long, distortion-laden solo that weaved in and out of the Star Spangled Banner). Chan Kinchala played his guitar tastefully and with restraint, a very welcome development given his past proclivity for ridiculous rock star posturing and headache inducing rapid-fire fretboard pyrotechnics. Yes, Chan was well-behaved and his brother, Tad, (who is now the bass player) was deep in the groove and playing thick basslines. Brendan Hill’s drumming held it all together all the while I was having a difficult time keeping it all together--I couldn’t believe how good they sounded.

As soon as they stepped on stage and slammed into “Carolina Blues,” I was impressed with the band’s focus and tightness. As the set progressed, it also became evident that Blues Traveler has become a lot more funky—a prime example of this was the clavinet-led jam in the middle of a massive “Slow Change.” Another nice surprise was that this set was a segue-fest: they were sliding in and out of songs and tossing out teases (i.e. “Low Rider”). Finally, it was marvelous how they jammed into a rearranged introduction to “Hook,” because this is a beautiful, basic song and the manner in which they backed into it was delightful—one moment the music is not quite identifiable as a known song, the next Popper is singing the first verse, which causes a delayed jolt of recognition and appreciation to course through the crowd. Very nice.

The last Dead-related show I saw was last year’s Other Ones performance outside of Live Oak, Florida. It was terrible. That performance was so slow and boring, it made me want to take a nap. I share this information so that you will be aware that I was wary of RatDog and concerned they would perform in a similar fashion. Fortunately, my concerns were groundless. RatDog performed a beautiful, melodic, seamless set of music. It was also a nicely constructed set in regard to pacing, tempo, new material vs. old classics, covers, and special guests.

The set began with Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman performing a gorgeous, acoustic “Blackbird.” Wasserman was thumping on a big ol’ stand-up bass, and it sounded pretty beneath Weir’s plucking on his finely tuned acoustic guitar. As the identifying traits of “Blackbird” washed away, Mark Karan appeared on stage and the three of them launched into “Corrina.” After “Corrina,” the rest of the band came on stage and eased into the flow of the evening.

I enjoyed “Bury Me Standing > Scarlet Begonias” because I liked seeing RatDog merge original material with a classic Dead war-horse of a song. I liked “Dear Prudence” because the fantastic New Orleans trumpet player Irvin Mayfield sat in on a nice, soothing jam at the end of the tune; his trumpet meshed perfectly with the sound the band was seeking to create. I loved hearing “Bird Song” because, well, it’s “Bird Song!”

Kudos to RatDog and Blues Traveler for bringing the goods on a beautiful day in New Orleans. However, since this is New Orleans, the music for the day didn’t stop with the conclusion of the festival. Down at Tipitina’s, Moore and More and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band were preparing to add another entry into the day’s ledger of musical pleasure. I missed the Dirty Dozen’s opening set so that I could return home and clean up after a long day in the sun, and arrived at the club shortly before midnight. Moore and More went on shortly thereafter, and immediately the effects of their recently completed mini-tour were on display. This was a red hot sizzling display of tight musical dexterity by every member of the band: Stanton Moore on drums, Charlie Dennard on organ, Brent Rose on sax, and Brian Seeger on guitar. Special recognition should also be given to the soundman at Tip’s, who had the band dialed in—loud, crystal clear, and distinct instrument separation. The soundman’s skill would particularly come into play when, towards the end of the 1st set, Stanton announced that the Dirty Dozen were going to sit in for two new tunes. The kicker was that Stanton had only shown them the charts for the songs a few minutes before he started his 1st set, meaning that they were going to gamble and just see what happened.

Well, let’s just say that this gamble paid large dividends to everyone who was fortunate enough to be in the club to witness it. For twenty some odd minutes, we witnessed a powerful barrage of brass and percussion. Stanton was laying down killer beats and the Dirty Dozen horns were wailing with authority and purpose, playing lines that darted and swam around each other. At times the much revered and perfect concept of group improvisation was in effect. What I mean by that is that everyone was soloing, but they were soloing in cohesion and filling a particular space in the music. Just so you understand, there were nine instruments on stage (3 saxophones, a trombone, a tuba, a trumpet, an organ, drums, and guitar), plus Terrance Higgins was standing behind Stanton and adding fills on his kit. In spite of all this chaos, the result was not muddy mayhem, but rather beautiful distinctive flavorings and great music.

There was a lot of good energy coming off the stage at this point, and that translated into the crowd. People were freaking out in whatever way possible—dancing, thrashing about, screaming, hugging each other, head bobbing, standing with jaws agape, laughing in disbelief—it was very emotional. The energy being created on stage and sent out into the audience was a tangible thing—you could feel its currents. What had begun as a good show spontaneously morphed into a gigantic and merry group therapy session.

When it ended, when Stanton announced they were taking a brief setbreak, when the loud cheering and clapping had subsided, you could see the flush in people’s faces slowly fading, goofy smiles casually emerging, and deep sighs being carefully taken. I interpreted these actions as the audience’s minds starting to grasp that this was something significant and monumental, and we were all better people for having witnessed it.

The second set was also very good and very groovy, but the essential information that needs to be relayed from this performance is what I discussed in the previous two paragraphs. Wow.

Billy Thinnes
JamBase New Orleans Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 9/24/01]

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