The Other Travelers
Blues Traveler - The Wallflowers
UIC Pavilion - Chicago
November 14, 1996
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 1997, Volume 4, #1
Written by John Metzger
Blues Traveler came paid a visit to UIC Pavilion, a great little arena, in mid-November with The Wallflowers in tow as the opening act. Blues Traveler seems to have a split personality, and one side shows up to play the H.O.R.D.E. tour in Chicago while the other, better side makes the trip on the band's annual Fall pilgrimage.
The Wallflowers put on a strong set of underappreciated material, covering most of its latest album Bringing Down the Horse. Except for the overly enthusiastic backing vocals of guitarist Michael Ward, it was a tight set, complete with a surprise ending. The band concluded by launching into an English Beat-style rendition of Smokey Robinson's Tears of a Clown. For some reason though, before the band began its set, some idiot in front of us felt the need to begin shouting for Freebird, prompting Jakob Dylan to mock the guy for the rest of the show. It was strangely contentious, and it served only to encourage the jackass to continue his heckling.
After a brief break, Blues Traveler took the stage to a roaring crowd. Right from the opening chords of But Anyway, the band was in synch, and the sound was perfect. Next came the familiar pairing of Crash Burn and Optimistic Thought, though this version hinted that something different was about to take place. In the middle of Optimistic Thought the band took a left turn and ran straight into the first of the newer songs of the evening — Canadian Rose, the tail-end of which curved back into the conclusion of Optimistic Thought.
Throughout the show, Blues Traveler mixed up the songs quite a bit, and a number of tunes made their Chicago debut. If the new material is any indication, the next album Straight on Till Morning should be fantastic. Most of the new tunes, like the songs that appeared on Four, have a mellower groove to them, and as a result, they give the band more dimensions in which to move. Another new song, Carolina Blues, led into a stellar performance of Price to Pay. The ending mutated into a jam session that hinted at Brother John before falling into Jabberwock. Sheehan then whipped the tune into a frenzy with the bass line from Brother John.
Regarding Steven was handled delicately, but unfortunately by this point, many people in the audience were complaining about all the "slower" material. Too bad. This adds variety to the show and is when Blues Traveler is really at its best. There's more emotional content to these songs and Regarding Steven was no exception. John Popper is not only an amazing harmonica player, but he has learned to sing with the best, carrying the emotion of the song to tremendous heights. The set concluded with an outstanding performance of The Mountains Win Again, which in turn gave way to Hook. For once, Blues Traveler actually sounded like it wanted to be performing the latter song, though this too, mutated back into the guitar solo in Mountains before finishing with the tiresome Run Around.
Fortunately, Blues Traveler more than made up for the poor conclusion with an unbelievable encore. The entire show was solidly played, and the band hit some unbelievable highs. Still, the encore was clearly the pinnacle. When the group returned, Popper approached his microphone and asked, Do you want to hear the suite? It then launched into a masterpiece that has been dubbed the Travelers' Suite, and Blues Traveler proceeded to explore the tune's boundaries and dimensions quite thoroughly. The underlying groove borrowed more than a passing riff from the Grateful Dead's The Other One, but it blew way past any recent versions of that song. It turned into a 25-minute jam session, with a light show that had everyone standing in awe of the power being wielded by the ensemble. The intensity was overbearing and quite frightening, especially combined with the psychedelic, Omnimax theater-like projections, as viewed from within a few feet of the stage.
Around the time that Save His Soul was released, it was hard to take the one dimensionality of Blues Traveler's live shows, which was the result of the onslaught of its harder-edged songs. (It seems as if this is the version of the band that frequently makes the rounds on the H.O.R.D.E. tour, at least in Chicago.) Consequently, many older fans opted to avoid the album as well as the group's concerts. Nevertheless, Save His Soul contains some great tracks such as Whoops, Go Outside and Drive, and Letter from a Friend, and Blues Traveler never fails to remind everyone about them. Indeed, the ensemble has come a long way. It has many more dimensions and can put on an amazing performance. Yes, it is now a mainstay of popular culture, and consequently, Run Around and Hook appear at nearly every show. But it's a small price to pay, when the band plays the way that it did at the UIC Pavilion.
Save His Soul is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Bringing Down the Horse is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright © 1997 The Music Box