Last night was July 4, which means, as for every July 4 since 1994, I was at Red Rocks to see Blues Traveler. The one exception was 1999, when the band didn’t play due to John Popper’s health problems. I first saw Blues Traveler in early 1991, when they played on Dave Letterman. A friend of mine had been talking the band up, as she had seen them play Wetlands a few times. I fell in love with the song “But Anyway,” and was so blown away I went out and bought their album the next day. I then caught the band for the first time a couple months later at Roseland.
For the next seven years, I saw Blues Traveler any chance I could, catching all their New York shows until I moved to Colorado in 1994. Two months after arriving in Denver, I saw my first Traveler show at Red Rocks, which was coincidentally the first time I heard “Run-Around,” which would come out on “Four” a few months later. I remember listening to that song and thinking, “If this song gets any radio play, Traveler is going to be huge.”
Well, it did, and for a few years, they were. The four shows the band played in Colorado in 1995, one at Red Rocks and three at the Paramount, are still some of my favorites of the 40-odd Traveler shows I have seen. A year later, the band had exploded to the point they could play two nights at Red Rocks.
A few years later, bassist “Brooklyn” Bob Sheehan died. The band replaced him with Tad Kinchla, the brother of Traveler guitarist Chan Kinchla. They also added a keyboard player, Ben Wilson, and started to tone down their once prolific jamming in favor of more pop-oriented songs, trying, and failing, to duplicate the radio play of “Run-Around.” In some ways, the radio success of that single changed the band for the worse. The attempts to stay radio-friendly hurt their popularity with the jam band crowd, which continued to follow Phish and Widespread Panic, and also looked to new acts like String Cheese Incident. It’s a shame, because Blues Traveler helped build the second-wave jam band scene by founding the H.O.R.D.E tour, which brought together five jam bands that couldn’t sell out arenas on their own at the time: Aquarium Rescue Unit, Widespread Panic, Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, and Phish. That tour, which I saw at Jones Beach in 1992, is still one of the musical highlights of my life. As a side note, Traveler ended their set by singing “Gilligan’s Island,” which was funny, as asking a band to sing “Gilligan’s” had been a long-running joke between me and my best friend Diana.
Last night’s show featured the band playing their new album in its entirety, then some old songs. The new album has some moments, but without the jamming to drive it, the music doesn’t really sparkle the way it used to. Perhaps it’s the attrition of age. Even the once monumental “Sweet Talking Hippie,” which was driven for seemingly hours by frenetic jamming, got a cursory one-minute jam before winding into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
The band members still love playing, obviously, and still have their chops. I still enjoy the shows, but I can’t help but feel wistful for the mid-90s, when going to a Blues Traveler show was something I eagerly anticipated, and would drive hours for to have my mind blown for three hours, instead of something that I’ll go see because it’s got its moments.
Read my Denver Post review of the show here.