Blues Traveler is a bit of an enigma in the live music world. Yes, they essentially founded the modern jam band movement alongside Widespread Panic and Phish, but they are equally famous for their commercial success. Like any band deserving longevity and greatness, they've refused to be categorized, taken their lumps (and they've had their share) like any rock and rollers would, and kept on trucking. Their recent release has them getting back to their bread and butter--the live show--with selected songs from the 2003 incarnation of their annual July Fourth Red Rocks Amphitheater shows. The album, aptly titled Live: On the Rocks, is a typical live album mixing older material with the new with a surprise or two thrown in.
I will be honest: I have not followed the BT arc in the last few years. I throw on their self-titled debut album with regularity and consider it to be a masterpiece of rock 'n' roll in the category of Zeppelin IV or Who's Next, but have found the evolution of their sound to be, in a word, stagnant. So listening to this live album, I was most struck by how, even still, their sound persists as if it is still the early '90s. Most surprising to me, though, was how refreshing it all sounded to me. While other bands have tried to grow by embracing a passing fancy with funk or electronica, I found no such pandering in the Red Rocks set. Instead, the band relies solely on having good songs to get them by, and there's a reason they've weathered the storms worthy of their own Behind the Music episode – the songs are good. All this brings up the ultimate paradox to me: Blues Traveler is a quintessential jam band, yet they seem more at home writing songs and recording in the studio than on the stage.
Yes, the music on On the Rocks is great, or at least listenable, throughout, but mostly because the songs are good. Once the band starts jamming, they start to lose me. I'll admit being partial to older material like "Hook" and "Support Your Local Emperor" since I'm more familiar, but taken as a whole, the set is solid and unmistakably Blues Traveler. The big moment of the disc is a cover of Marley's "No Woman No Cry." When I heard it start up the first time through the album, I had this what-a-terrible-cover-for-this-band feeling and only when the first verse kicked in and I realized that Ziggy Marley was sitting in did I realize the choice. Still, it comes across as awkward as Popper and Marley trade verses and it is obvious, as lovable as Popper's vocals are, just how badly the two mix together on this. To the casual Blues Traveler fan, I suggest "Dropping Some NYC" with that untoppable debut album; to the diehard, you already have Live: On the Rocks, so enjoy!
JamBase | New York
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