Words & Images by Robert Massie

Blues Traveler :: 10.21.05 :: House Of Blues :: Cleveland, OH

John Popper - Blues Traveler :: 10.21 :: OH
It's hard to believe it's been so long, but Blues Traveler has spent more than 23 years giving their devoted fans everything for which they could possibly ask. Groundbreaking H.O.R.D.E. festival tours, classic and timeless albums, godfathering and practically personifying a whole modern musical movement – nothing beyond the call of duty for these melancholy madcaps. Blues Traveler has certainly come a long way, but how did they do it? It's hard to say that Blues Traveler got here by breaking the rules, mostly because musicians never like to follow the rules (or even write them down for posterity's sake). However, taken at first glance, their new perspective on songwriting and performing seems to unabashedly cross an unwritten fundamental in the Traveler camp – making music with the fans in focus. Blues Traveler themselves are more than happy to announce this departure loudly and clearly. In fact, the press release for their new album Bastardos! tells the tale of a band whose time to be SELFISH has finally arrived. But, not to worry, this isn't the kind of blatant self-gratification that prevails in mainstream music today. A deeper look at this situation reveals a more productive and positive reason for change. This new attitude is truly just an honest and well-intentioned effort to keep growing and surviving, something Blues Traveler is almost frighteningly good at. Too often, industry politics and popular trends combine with the general effects of time and the highway in preventing a band from progressing beyond a certain level. Having survived heaping doses of all of the above, Blues Traveler set out to reinvigorate their catalogue and, indeed, the identity of the band itself by taking a more self-centered approach to everything they do. The new rule of the day: If it makes the members of the band happy, the audience will pick up on it and probably dig it too. Not surprisingly, this music that was apparently written for self-satisfaction was performed on a rainy night at Cleveland's House Of Blues with a flow and format that kept the audience's fulfillment firmly in the forefront. By giving themselves this chance for unfettered contentment, Blues Traveler has actually ended up bestowing magnificent gifts on their fans they almost certainly couldn't have given any other way.

Terry Clark - Carbon Leaf :: 10.21 :: OH
The night started with a wonderful warm-up by cherished crooners Carbon Leaf. After the first notes of their anthem "What About Everything?," it was apparent that many of the 700 or so in attendance were very familiar with Carbon Leaf's critically heralded album, 2004's Indian Summer. Vocalist Barry Privett held the crowd on his every word as he chanted about the "Holiday sky, midnight clear..." in his smooth, trademark, Celtic-infused delivery. "Life Less Ordinary" followed and was well received, with a great upright baseline by Jordan Medas, whose energetic presence added to the bounce of the crowd just as much as the punch of his low end. It was no surprise that "Boxer," a huge college radio hit and the song Carbon Leaf performed on the 2002 American Music Awards, had the most Blues Traveler fans scratching their heads and wondering where they'd heard it before. "Raise The Roof" was notable for its depth and excellent harmonies, plus mandolin mastery courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Carter Gravatt. "Gloryland" was a treat for the fans, as the band gathered around a single microphone for an impressive a cappella recital. Guitarist Terry Clark enjoyed some banter with the ladies in the front row before leading the band into "Troubles," which ended up closing the set on a strong note. The band graciously thanked Blues Traveler for the slot and the fans for their open ears and received a nice ovation in return.

Kinchla & Popper - Blues Traveler :: 10.21 :: OH
With the reigns turned over and the stage set, Blues Traveler was ready to steer the crowd through a strong set of the band's favorite material. Since their hiatus in the late 1990's, the former quartet has added a keyboardist, and Ben Wilson was the first to emerge from behind the famous House of Blues curtain. Shortly thereafter, guitarist Chan Kinchla and John Popper lead the rest of the band out, and the crowd couldn't have acted more excited, erupting into unrestrained applause. A killer segue between "Back In The Day" > "Dropping Some NYC" started things off with a vengeance. Almost immediately, I noticed how John Popper, although still set up in the middle of the stage, plays less of a spoke-and-wheel role and is truly more just another part of the circle. I also noticed how easily the band slipped between a song written in 2001 and one over a decade earlier; Blues Traveler has a true gift for stamping their confluent signature on their material without becoming overused or obvious. That very stamp has morphed to become more reflective of the band as a whole and is not just defined by the presence of John Popper's hallmark harmonica. Yet the question remained – how would the material from the newer, more "selfish" Blues Traveler stack up with road-tested favorites, and more importantly, the crowd's expectations? The first single off Bastardos!, a lovely tune called "Amber Awaits," answered the question in pristine form and got the crowd bopping with Popper's inquisitive refrain "I want to see... if Amber awaits for me." Popper has become quite the bachelor in the past year – since breaking off his engagement, he has admitted to falling in and out of love and really using it to his creative advantage. One can only wonder if there really was an "Amber," and what's more, if Amber approves of her new role as muse? The world will have to wait on the answer – in the meantime, the band began a great "Fucked Run." Basically, the song is the lyrics and structure of the ultra-mega hit "Runaround" set to an angst-ridden hard-rock guitar line with jaw-dropping results. This selection seemed to embody all the spirit of the band's recent redirection in that it took perhaps their best known pop tune and shredded it without concern for those radio-friendly fans in the house. Anyhow, no one was shocked when the song got a huge positive response from the crowd. Popper followed by taking the time to sing "Happy Birthday" to a few lucky celebrators in attendance, certainly easing the minds of anyone truly taken back by "Run" while buttering up the crowd for more unabashed self-interest.

Kinchla - Blues Traveler :: 10.21 :: OH
The set rolled along with a wonderful treat, as "This Ache" melted into John Lennon's "Imagine." The low lights illuminated Popper but should have focused more on bassist extraordinaire Tad Kinchla, who took a bass line that's been played a million times and interjected his own personality. He led the band out of Lennon's world into a great stretch featuring "Psycho Joe" > "Partner In Crime" > "All Hands." Just as the energy of Popper's harmonica in "Hands" was reaching a huge crescendo, the band slammed into the night's crowd-reaction winner, "Run-Around." By making the popular version more of a reprise of "Fucked Run," Blues Traveler again played on their terms with results the audience not only adapted to but ate up. Indeed, the needle on the "applause-o-meter" at House of Blues had to be peeled back after the appreciative fans got the chance to show the band their thankfulness. The hits didn't stop there. Instead, a scintillating recital of "But Anyway" followed with a huge jam between Chan and Tad Kinchla that proved even a song played 557 times before can still provide space for new exploration. "Dropping Some NYC" was revisited, making it the bread in a whopping 18-song sandwich. It would be an unforgivable oversight not to mention Brendan Hill, as he was just spot-on perfect all night. Finally, during a segue in the final suite of the evening ("Eventually" > "Carolina Blues" > "Crash Burn"), Hill was allowed to let it all out with a masterful display of his beat-keeping and snare-rolling skills. He and Tad Kinchla have truly gelled as a rhythm section, and even though many in the crowd still miss departed (way too soon) bassist Bobby Sheehan, there is no doubt that the music still has a serious backbone. The band was quickly brought back for an encore of "100 Years" > "The Path" by a crowd determined to keep on dancing until the very last note. The song ended with a big drum roll and breakdown, then Popper and the Kinchlas took the time to shake hands and sign autographs before going behind the curtain and back on the road yet again.

John Popper - Blues Traveler :: 10.21 :: OH
After a career spanning over 20 years, Blues Traveler has entered a new phase. Even if today's music scene isn't like it was when they were on top of the world (H.O.R.D.E. and Four), the future certainly is wide open for these five accomplished troubadours. So what if the Fall Tour Cleveland show didn't exactly divulge the true secret to Blues Traveler's success. No one really expected to have that complicated question answered. What the show did reveal is a band not afraid in the least to concentrate on making music that makes them happy. It's really no wonder the fans have stuck in there. After all, what type of fan would expect their favorite band to do anything but pursue personally rewarding endeavors? Can anyone really respect someone who doesn't love what they do? Well, the fans have followed, and Blues Traveler indubitably loves what they do these days - mostly because they have allotted themselves a little more "me" time. It truly has proven to be the gift from five "selfish bastards" that just keeps on giving!


Blues Traveler:
(I): Back In The Day > Dropping Some NYC > All Hands > Amber Awaits, Fucked Run > The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly > Money Back Guarantee > You Reach Me, Defense & Desire, This Ache > Imagine > Psycho Joe > Partner In Crime > All Hands > Run-Around, Stumble & Fall > Love & Greed, You Can't Stop Thinking About Me > Can't Win True Love > But Anyway > Dropping Some NYC, Eventually > Carolina Blues > Crash Burn
(E): 100 Years > The Path

Carbon Leaf:
(I): Changeless, What About Everything, One Prairie Outpost, Life Less Ordinary, Boxer, Raise The Roof, Bron, Gloryland, Troubles

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[Published on: 11/14/05]

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