Harmonicas: Not just for polka bands anymore.
If anyone still questions the truth of this statement, last Wednesday's
Blues Traveler concert at Hill Auditorium proved it beyond a shadow of a
Most of the evening was a laid-back blues-rock fest, but unfortunately,
the opening act introduced a jarring pop-radio influence to the show. This
was the Wallflowers, a pop band best known for the single "Sixth
Avenue Heartache." Audience members unfamiliar with the group's other
work, however, were not at a disadvantage. As it turned out, every song of
the Wallflowers' set was reminiscent of "Sixth Avenue Heartache"
- simple backbeat, strained rhymes and a slow, melodic pace. The group
drew some comparisons to the Gin Blossoms, but without that band's more
interesting lyrics and poppy, infectious qualities.
One intriguing aspect of the Wallflowers' performance, though, was the
crowd response. The group's set was punctuated by enthusiastic screams and
exhortations to "Play 'Hollywood,'" a request that the band did
not oblige. As the Wallflowers' mediocre performance was met with
uncritical crowd adoration, the scene resembled nothing so much as a New
Kids on the Block concert, back in the day.
A half-hour intermission gave time to ponder this chilling thought.
Luckily, Blues Traveler began its set with "But Anyway," a
fast-paced, catchy song that provided a good distraction from Donnie
Wahlberg flashbacks. In what became a pattern for the evening, the band
played the first two verses, then paused for an instrumental jam, led by
frontman and harmonica-meister John Popper.
As the evening went on, it became apparent that the Wallflowers - and many
other current bands - could learn a lot from Blues Traveler. Like the
Wallflowers', most of Blues Traveler's songs were similar: harmonica
solos, simple, repeated refrains and a basic verse-chorus-verse structure.
In live performance, they kept to this pattern, only extending the
instrumental bridges. However, Blues Traveler managed to make every song
sound different and new, even when playing well-known pieces like
"Hook" and "Stand."
One reason this happened was the band's mix of music. As on their 1994
album four, Blues Traveler alternated slower songs like "The
Mountains Win Again" with faster, blues-influenced songs like
"Fallible." The band played several new songs, nearly all of
which were bluesy, highly instrumental pieces. Titled "Carolina
Blues," "Last Night I Dreamed" and "Great Big
World," these will probably be heard on an album in the near
Hearing covers of songs is usually a good reason to go to a live
performance, and Blues Traveler didn't disappoint here, either. A few
songs into the first half of the evening, the stage went dark, and Popper
played a harmonica version of "The Star-Spangled Banner,"
reprising his performance of it during the World Series. The first half
concluded with a cover of "Low Rider," and at the end of the
night, Blues Traveler encored with a subdued version of
The one fault of the performance was seen in the second half. At this
point in what turned out to be a four-and-a-half-hour show, the crowd was
simply worn out, though it managed to revive its enthusiasm when "The
Mountains Win Again" and "Run-Around" played. Blues Traveler
followed up "Run-Around" with a half-hour instrumental jam that
would have been much more engaging at a shorter length. As it was, much
of the audience simply tuned out, or left the auditorium altogether.
Overall, the evening was a mix of contrasts, which perhaps is the true
appeal of Blues Traveler shows. Slow and fast songs; traditional rock
instruments and harmonicas; simple song patterns and instrumental riffs;
frat boys and aging hippies ... none of these would seem to harmonize well
together, but somehow they did. Unlike many lesser bands, Blues Traveler
demonstrated the ability to synthesize many diverse elements, and to
provide a unique, energetic show at the same time.