Under a threatening September sky, a large crowd began flocking around the Ravenlaw Stage on this first night of Ottawa’s Folkfest in anticipation of a band who, by the 1990‘s, had seriously shaken up the music scene. Blues Traveler, originally a quartet made up of Brendan Hill on drums, Bobby Sheehan on bass, Chan Kinchla on guitar, and the harmonica/vocal stylings of John Popper, experimented with fusions of blues, blues-rock, folk rock, country, cajun, R&B and funk in a genre-hopping array of catchy hooks and infectious rhythms. Their stage shows have become known for carrying on extended versions of their material in a jam style format, with rounds of solos and songs stitched together medley-style.
After 27 years, this band has seen it all. Having left Princeton, New Jersey in the late eighties for bigger and better things, they made their beginnings playing the New York club circuit relentlessly, the travels and experiences of which they wrote a great deal of material around. They were discovered in a club one night by an A&M talent scout and later signed their first record deal in 1990.
Their self-titled debut album contained the track “But Anyway”, which received a great deal of airplay on college radio stations. Soon, they landed a spot on Late Night With David Letterman, which would become the first of many more return appearances. In 1994 they would release their fourth and most successful album, Four, containing their biggest hits, “Hook”, and “Run Around”, which received a Grammy award in 1996 for Best Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. They played Woodstock ’94, opened for the Rolling Stones, appeared in various television shows and movies including 1996 comedy, Kingpin, and Blues Brothers 2000. As well, many of their songs have been featured on numerous film soundtracks.
Along with riding the crest of the wave this band has also come through some trying times. Popper survived a motorcycle accident in 1993, emergency heart surgery due to health issues in the Summer of 1999 and the sudden death of their bass player, Bobby Sheehan just 2 months later that same year.
Also, 1999 saw the absorption of A&M Records into Universal Music Group’s, Interscope Geffen A&M Label, and downsized their roster of artists with Blues Traveler being one of the bands affected. Despite these bumps in the road the band has gone on performing and recording, acquiring new bassist, Tad Kinchla and the addition of keyboardist, Ben Wilson.
Their latest CD, Suzie Cracks The Whip (2012), features more exploration into their songwriting with collaborations from Ron Sexsmith (who Popper later gushes is his favourite Canadian), Aaron Beavers, Carrie Rodriguez and Spin Doctors frontman and longtime friend, Chris Barron. There is a little bit of everything on this album, some folk-rock flavoured pieces, a couple of heavier rockers, a ballad or two and a few country-infused tracks, including a duet with Crystal Bowersox. Currently, Blues Traveler is on a massive US/Canadian tour, playing at the many music festivals taking place all over the continent.
As I stood waiting for the show to begin, I noticed a small table set up at the front of the stage, on which Popper’s specialized mic for his harmonica was set up and ready-to-go, along with half a dozen or so red solo cups which are a standard sight at every show. The night began with an opening drone of bass so heavy I could feel my bones rattling in my chest, and the crowd started to cheer at the first sight of Popper’s entrance onto the stage.
After a very powerful, funky blues/jazz jam-style intro, they went completely off course into a sped up version of “Devil Went Down To Georgia”, after which they flowed straight into one my favourites off their recent CD, “Things Are Looking Up”, a very catchy blues/rock number laced with the sweet sounds of Wilson’s Hammond organ. I loved Popper’s signature vocal rhythmic phrasing in the chorus, complete with a searing harp solo. The tempo remained constant for the non-stop ride into the cover of Sublime’s, “What I Got”, which they played with a great coasting groove. They then led the warmed up crowd into their smash hit, “Run Around”, which had bodies in motion, oblivious to the lightly sprinkling sky. That’s the thing I’ve found in my experience with Ottawa crowds…we don’t mind the rain!
Popper slowed things down to sing a song from their current CD, “Cara Let The Moon Come In”, a traditional Irish meets Don McLean ballad with a bare-bones accompaniment of piano. This particular song is one of his personal favourites, written about a bar in Brooklyn. He states it’s the best song he’s written in the past decade. From there, the band moved into the the fast grooving hit from their debut CD, “But Anyway”, which they turned into a welcomed extended version, featuring both an amazing guitar solo, and some impressive slap and pull, laid down by the Kinchla brothers. They ensued with an early number from the late eighties entitled, “Dropping Some NYC”, a very jam-style textured piece, brought to feverish swells with blistering Hendrix-toned guitar sequences, and some frenzied harp shredding by Popper.
But my favourite portion of the night was another they played from their Four album, entitled, “The Mountains Win Again”, written by their late bass player, Bobby Sheehan. I loved its soulful melody line, with Popper’s warm vocals in the verses which rose into passionate long sustains in the chorus…it swept me away. Now nearing the end of the show, it was time to bring out their other mid nineties blockbuster, “Hook”, a song I remember that grabbed me instantly the first time I heard it.
Popper’s voice rang out clear as a bell as the audience picked up the dance pace under their umbrellas and rain slickers. The show finished as it began, with a final accelerated verse and chorus of the Charlie Daniels classic, bringing an end to a party that was only just getting started. Tonight, the early nineties were seamlessly brought back to our feet for a short time, and we celebrated the talent and musical exuberance of Blues Traveler, who changed the face of music…once upon a midnight dreary.