Blues Traveler at Red Rocks on July 4? It's tradition, man. - Reverb

Live review: Blues Traveler, Matisyahu and Toad the Wet Sprocket @ Red Rocks Amphitheatre

Blues Traveler returned to the foothills west of Denver on Monday for a show that celebrated its long history with Colorado and July 4 at Red Rocks. As John Popper said before launching into a harmonica-feedback version of “Star Spangled Banner” on Monday night: “We’ve been doing the math, and it’s been 21 years since we played our first show in Colorado, and 20 years since we first played Red Rocks, and 19 years that we have been doing the July 4 thing.”

The band kicked into a groove early on “NY Prophesie,” with Popper and guitarist Chan Kinchla trading back and forth solo fills. The always popular “Run-Around” had everyone in the nearly packed amphitheater on their feet dancing and singing along.

Blues Traveler has been known to play some off-the-wall covers, and they surprised the crowd last night with a take on Radiohead’s “Creep.” Popper’s voice, which seemed to be suffering a little from the altitude and his smoking habit, couldn’t quite match the longing anguish of Thom Yorke, and Kinchla’s guitar sounded a little too polished. The band also got the entire crowd singing along on “No Woman No Cry,” on which one of the opening acts, Hasidic Jewish reggae-rapper Matisyahu, sat in.

Last year at Red Rocks, Blues Traveler celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of their first CD by playing the album in track order. For an encore this year, they celebrated the release of their second album, “Travelers and Thieves,” by doing the same. After closing the first set with “Hook,” they took a very short break, during which the video screen at stage left showed the band on a Dennis Miller show appearance playing “All in the Groove.”

With little fanfare, they returned and launched into “Onslaught,” with bassist Tad Kinchla ripping into the rolling bass line with relish, and followed with “Ivory Tusk.” Popper mentioned that he felt little had changed, as the band completed the second album against the backdrop of the first Iraq war, themes that they explored in those two songs.

“20 years later, we’re still playing, and we’re still in Iraq,” he said.

Over the last decade, Traveler has gone for a more polished sound, and the rawness of their early, frenetic shows has all but disappeared. That’s a natural process for a band; listen to the Grateful Dead’s late-’60s acid-infused explorations and compare them to the late-’80s stadium shows. The Dead however, and many of Blues Traveler’s jam band brethren, make more extensive use of their back catalog. Traveler has not always done so, and Popper acknowledged that before delving into “I Have My Moments,” saying they hadn’t played it in a “…long, long, long time.”

Most of the songs were played at the same tempo as the album, though there was room for some jamming on a few songs, such as an extended “Support Your Local Emperor.” Before the encore, a fiery “Mountain Cry,” Popper and his bandmates toasted the late “Brooklyn” Bob Sheehan, their original bass player who died in 1999. Here’s hoping the band will continue to incorporate more of their classic material with the newer.

In addition to Matisyahu, whose mostly dispirited set did catch fire on “One Day,” also on the bill Monday night were ’90s alternative rockers Toad the Wet Sprocket. Singer Glen Phillips observed that they had spent much of the last decade “breaking up and reforming.” Listening to them live, you remember how many hits the band actually had, and the closing “All I Want” and “Fall Down” may have won over some new fans as well.

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Candace Horgan is a Denver freelance writer/photographer and regular contributor to Reverb. When not writing and shooting, she plays guitar and violin in Denver band Black Postcards.

  • Robert B.

    Awesome show! Blues Traveler at Red Rocks is a highlight every year.

  • BlackCat4Ever

    This was my umpteenth year seeing Blues Traveler at Red Rocks. The reviewer fails to mention Popper struggling through the lyrics of the first 4 songs and puts his vocal issues kindly.  Until Mountain Cry Popper struggled to hit anything in his upper register. Love to blame altitude too but the fact of the matter is if you listen to older Red Rocks shows, or the DVD recorded at Red Rocks, the man was able to sound good just a few years ago.  He’s thrashed his voice, and let his body go to hell once again. A sad show this year….”All my heros up and died”.