“We’re celebrating a decade of 20th anniversaries,” said Blues Traveler frontman John Popper at the start of the band’s annual July 4 show at Red Rocks Thursday night. Popper explained that it was the 20th time the band had booked the famed Colorado venue. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the band’s third album, “Save His Soul,” which they honored by playing in track order.
I first saw Blues Traveler in April 1991 at Roseland in New York City, two months after seeing the band perform “But Anyway” on David Letterman. I’d been so blown away by them on Letterman that I went out and bought their debut CD the next day. During the next eight months, I saw them play seven times around the New York area, including their first show at Madison Square Garden, an opening slot for the Jerry Garcia Band (more on that later). Over the next few years, I would buy any new release from the band the day it came out.
Released in April 1993, “Save His Soul” has a darker, grittier tone than most other Blues Traveler albums, in part due to the circumstances in which it was recorded. In October 1992, Popper, on the way to a recording session for the album, was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him in a wheelchair for most of the rest of the recording sessions. At the band’s 1992 New Year’s Eve show at the Paramount Theatre in New York (now called The Theater at Madison Square Garden), he played most of the show in the wheelchair, although he stood up at midnight. An early booster of the band, promoter Bill Graham, had also died in October 1991, and the band, who was very close to Graham’s son David, was still affected by it, something they wrote about on “Letter From A Friend.”
On Thursday, after playing the first four songs of “Save His Soul” fairly straight up, including the aforementioned “Letter From A Friend,” and “Believe Me,” on which a 13-year-old guitarist from Seattle named Caspian jammed with them, Traveler started to stretch out. “Go Outside And Drive,” once a mainstay of Traveler shows and now one they haven’t played in four years, featured a lot of jams into and out of other songs, including “Low Rider,” “Loser,” and “Blister in the Sun.” moe. percussionist Jim Loughlin also played xylophone on the song, balancing out Popper’s harmonica fireworks nicely.
During “Defense And Desire,” while bassist Tad Kinchla took a spacey, extended solo on his huge seven-string bass that would not have been out of place at a Phish show, fireworks started to go off behind the stage (the fireworks kept going for the next four songs.)
Popper’s voice held up for the most part, but it did crack in almost every song, perhaps due to the altitude and his longtime smoking habit. However, it did not seem to affect his lightning-quick harmonica playing. One off note came when Popper switched to guitar for “Love Of My Life.” During the intro, he and Tad Kinchla seemed to be playing in different keys, and Popper’s midsong solo went off the rails before he got it back.
moe. guitarist Al Schnier joined the band on an extended “Save His Soul,” and he and Popper got into a great give-and-take jam at the end that touched on both funk and blues elements.
The jamming highlighted another interesting part of the band playing “Save His Soul.” Before the encore, Popper stated that it had been good to play some old songs that they hadn’t played in years and rediscover some that they really liked. “Save His Soul” preceded the band’s monster release “Four,” which contains “Run-Around,” “Hook,” and “The Mountains Win Again,” and which they will play next year. Prior to the release of “Four,” Blues Traveler had been much more in with the second wave of jam bands, often playing with Widespread Panic or Phish. Extended jams between songs were the norm for the band, and the audience for Blues Traveler shows was the same as that for Phish and Panic.
“Four” changed everything, as the band gained an entirely new wave of fans attracted to the pop masterpieces it contained. That left Blues Traveler with a somewhat schizophrenic audience. Many in the crowd on Thursday didn’t seem to know what to make of the darker, more jam-oriented “Save His Soul,” and a small but steady stream headed for the exits during the fireworks, leaving Red Rocks perhaps two-thirds full by the time Popper started the encore with his feedback-laden take on Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Anyone who left missed a 12-year-old Colorado girl, Jaden Carlson, showing a preternatural poise and class when she played guitar with the band on ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” She and Caspian traded solos, and Carlson showed impressive chops.
Opener moe., the most underrated band in the jam rock scene, played a fantastic set that had me flashing back to Blues Traveler’s opening set for Jerry Garcia in 1991. Traveler played a short, six-song set before Garcia, and when they left, I remember wanting them to stay and play a full show because their energy was so great. When moe. left the stage after a smoking 75-minute set, I briefly wished they would play a second set, although Traveler thankfully met the challenge that moe. threw down. Popper and Traveler keyboardist Ben Wilson joined the band for two songs, including a ripping “Plane Crash.” The highlight of the set was the guitar exploration on “Haze,” with Schnier and guitarist Chuck Garvey trading extended solos.
Trina Magna, Love and Greed, Letter From A Friend, Believe Me, Go Outside And Drive, Defense And Desire, Whoops, Manhattan Bridge, Love Of My Life, NY Prophesie, Save His Soul, Bullshitter’s Lament, Conquer Me, Fledgling, E: The Star Spangled Banner, Cara Let the Moon, La Grange, Hook
Tailspin > ( nh) Captain America > (nh) Akimbo, Crackers (w/ John Popper and Ben Wilson), Plane Crash (w/ John Popper and Ben Wilson), Haze > Jazz Wank > Rebubula, New York City
Lisa Higginbotham is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. See more of her work here.