For a brief moment in the mid- to late 1990s, it looked as if the hippies were taking over. Phish had picked up where the Grateful Dead left off. Widespread Panic slipped into household-name status for a millisecond. And Blues Traveler had a little multiplatinum album called Four.
So it's pretty strange to look back on all that now. Widespread Panic is once again Widespread Who? Phish has come off a yearlong hiatus for a tour that has been far-less-than-spectacular -- we can say with certainty that the Atlanta show was a disappointment, and reports coming everywhere from Phoenix to the Carolinas also speak dimly of the live performances.
And Blues Traveler? Well, the band is playing the Culture Room. Which is not to say that the Culture Room is a poor venue. Far from it. But it's certainly not the sort of place one expects to see a band with several platinum albums under its belt that was formerly ensconced on the stadium circuit.
"We're not doing a full fall tour," explains bassist Tad Kinchla. "And because of that, we're kind of rooting around. We've got a couple of festivals, a couple of big shows, and we decided to pepper it with a few small shows, like [the Culture Room], and we're gonna do a couple of other small clubs. And that's just because we're not doing a full-on album-release tour. We'll save the bigger venues for when we come back in the spring."
The problem is, Blues Traveler should be doing an album-release fall tour. The band's latest record, Truth Be Told, which came out in early August, continues the band's departure from its initial formula. For example, it's not until the fourth track, "My Blessed Pain," that the listener gets the expected harmonica histrionics.
"I thought [the album] was a little more succinct in its songwriting," Kinchla says. "We didn't really branch out for long jams. There's no ten-minute songs, and that was purposeful."
The horror! A Blues Traveler album with no long jams and hardly any of lead singer John Popper's harmonica? Who is this band, and what has it done with Blues Traveler?
"We decided to put an emphasis on John's vocals and make it more about songcrafting than exploiting the harmonica playing," Kinchla continues.
Which is essentially true. The puzzling factor is the decision to concentrate on one of Blues Traveler's weakest links -- Popper's alternately soft-spoken mumble and guttural growl -- at the expense of what the band does best, which is, of course, the long improvisation it now avoids.
"We have two major focuses," Kinchla states. "The way you write a set is not necessarily the way you pick songs for an album. We jam songs live five minutes longer than they are on the album, because that's a strength of the band. I think the strength of the band is live performances and being able to improvise, being able to represent songs in a really cool way."
Perhaps it's the same old story where jam bands are concerned -- the albums simply don't do the live performances justice. But there is a real difference here: the real, deliberate way Blues Traveler has created this record, and in many ways the previous one, 2001's Bridge. Blues Traveler's regression to dirty sloppy blues rock is a turnaround made by many of the band's contemporaries. As the entire scene seems to slip from national consciousness, the bands seem to be walking backward toward the future. While Blues Traveler won't garner any new acolytes with this direction, fans will welcome it.
"The way the band hears themselves play has a lot to do with the energy of a show," Kinchla says. "When you have small clubs, it's really fun to play them occasionally to keep it fresh. Different songs go over well. Some of the more jammy songs at a smaller venue -- say, in Fort Lauderdale -- where you have some hardcore fans, you tend to stretch out more and play some songs that might not be so recognizable."
Ah, sweet bliss -- not having to play "Run Around" for the gazillionth time.
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