Manhattan Blues

Blues Traveler - Jonny Lang

Aragon Ballroom - Chicago

November 21, 1997

First Appeared in The Music Box, January 1998, Volume 5, #1

Written by John Metzger


While Phish and Widespread Panic seem to be avoiding Chicago on a regular basis these days, Blues Traveler has become a regular Fall event. The band pulled into the Aragon for a pair of shows starting on November 21 and filled the room with a blanket of sound. Generally, the acoustics at this place are horrible, but Blues Traveler came through loud and clear, so much so that it was a breeze to pick out each musician in the mix.

The first set on November 21 was mostly a 70-minute warm-up as Blues Traveler pounded its way through the opening Ivory Tusk. Gina was a launching pad that jolted to the left, took a Hook right back into the main song, soared off on the electrical surges of Psycho Joe all before it concluded with the final verse of Gina. The changes were abrupt, but the result was an effective medley of songs.

Even so, the first set's highlight was a full-throttle run-through of Mountain Cry. Joined by Stretch, the rhythm guitarist from Johnny Lang's band, Blues Traveler took a few minutes to find a workable groove, but once it did, the result was nearly overwhelming. Packing the power and punch of Led Zeppelin's Since I've Been Loving You, the band tore through Mountain Cry with a passion as Stretch, guitarist Chan Kinchla, and harpist John Popper took turns wrapping the song and the audience in a thick, liquid blue cascade of notes.

The second set and encores lasted a whopping 105 minutes, as Blues Traveler began with a mini-acoustic set. This new feature really lets the band display its talent. Last Night I Dreamed embarked on a funky guitar riff from Kinchla, while Bob Sheehan's bass assaulted the song from below. Manhattan Bridge, an instrumental track from Save His Soul, was beautifully done and just when it appeared as if it might flow into The Mountains Win Again, it smoothly veered into a perfect rendition of Imagine.

Returning to its electric instruments, Blues Traveler blasted through a pairing of Stand and Whoops. Following the beautiful acoustic music that had opened the set, these songs packed the power of a nuclear explosion. During Whoops, Brendan Hill's perfectly timed drum shots flew through the air as Popper sang, Take a look at the horizon, quiet and still. You know there used to be bison. Gentleman, you may fire at will.

Popper finally picked up his guitar midway through the second set and outdid himself with a gut-wrenching vocal performance on Yours. Blues Traveler's added another cover song to the evening's foray with an outstanding rendition of Steve Miller's '70s hit The Joker. (Earler, the group had pulled out The Beatles' Come Together and the Charlie Daniels Band's The Devil Went Down to Georgia during the first set.)

The Mountains Win Again finally made its appearance towards the end of the set, and led to a very playful version of Go Outside and Drive. During the middle section of this song, Popper usually runs through a series of lyrics from other songs. This evening's version included instrumental portions of the Peanuts Theme, Low Rider, and I Can See Clearly Now, as well as lyrical excursions through Beck's Loser, Guantanamera, Inch Worm, and the crowd-pleasing Violent Femmes' song Blister in the Sun.

Blues Traveler rapidly returned to the stage and ran through 100 Years which slipped quietly into an amazing interpretation of Sweet Pain. Popper played guitar on both songs, and on the latter, he let loose on a very sweet solo. His guitar playing has improved dramatically over the years as evidenced on this masterpiece.

Jonny Lang opened the show with a mind-blowing set of blues-based songs. This must have been what it was like to see Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Duane Allman for the first time.

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Copyright 1997 The Music Box