Blues Traveler’s annual July 4 shows at Red Rocks have been uneven in recent years, but that changed in 2009. Photo from bluestraveler.com.
When you see a band play live enough times, what first drew you to them can seem rote and what was charming gets lost under a layer of cynicism. It can be especially hard to bear as you realize that many people are either superfans for whom the band can do no wrong, or newer ones who can’t tell a clunker from a jewel. Yet every now and then the band will deliver the goods once more, like rekindling a love affair with an old flame whom you can see in a new light, while tracing the history of all that’s gone before.
So it was for with Blues Traveler on Saturday night at Red Rocks. I’ve been seeing the band play for 18 years now, dating back to when they played clubs in New York and had just released their first album, a powerful 11-track blast of jam rock mixed with a pop ethos that set them apart from some of their neo-hippie brethren at the time, (including Phish and Widespread Panic, who both went on to greater success than Traveler).
Many of Blues Traveler’s recent shows at Red Rocks, which they play every year on July 4, have seemed like they were treading water. At times, they’d catch a groove and play with passion and intensity, but the shows were marred by uneven playing.
This year marks a decade since founding bass player Bobby Sheahan died, something singer-harmonica player John Popper acknowledged from the stage Saturday. Sheahan’s death left a huge hole, and while Tad Kinchla is a fine bass player, loosing Sheahan was something the band never quite seemed to overcome. Perhaps it was to honor Sheahan, but the band played with brilliant intensity all night.
Guitarist Chan Kinchla, decked out to look like a gangster, ripped fiery lead after fiery lead, taking over early on “Sweet Talking Hippie,” seeming to return to his guitar gunslinger heyday, while Popper’s harmonica caught fire early on “Dropping Some NYC.” The band was incredibly tight, and their occasional jams were highly focused. Bassist Tad Kinchla shined on “You Reach Me” with a deft extended solo on his 7-string bass, while keyboard player Ben Wilson played around with synth effects.
The band was so tight that they timed a performance of “Run-Around,” which came out of an extended sequence that included “Crystal Flame” and “I’ll Be There,” to end with the crescendo of a brilliant fireworks show.
In fact, it seemed that the band has made peace with their biggest hits. In recent years, they’d reworked “But Anyway” as a lackluster acoustic tune and turned “Run-Around” into a bitter, angry blues number, almost as though they resented having to play the song at almost every show. However, both tunes were played straight up Saturday night, and Popper ripped a harmonica solo on the former.
The band ended their show with an extended jam that included “Gloria,” and a riff on “Billie Jean,” as the band acknowledged Michael Jackson’s recent death once again. An absolutely huge “Brother John” closed out the show.
As a final tribute to Sheahan, the band ended their encore with Sheahan’s tune “The Mountains Win Again,” and it seemed that there too the band may have finally put his ghost to rest, or at least made peace enough with the hole his death left that they can move forward once more.
Local comedian Chuck Roy opened the evening, garnering laughs for some raunchy humor, before leaving the stage to Lewis Black, whose bitter retrospectives had the audience in stitches. Austin R&B outfit Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears then got the music going with a decent set that still seemed to owe too much to the Blues Brothers.
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