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'Suite' New Sounds from Blues Traveler
by Paul Robicheau
Boston Globe, Boston, MA
Dec 29th, 1996

One can picture a conversation between the veteran kings of today's neo-hippie circuit. Phish says to Blues Traveler, "Wish we could sell as many records as you guys," to which Traveler responds, "Wish we could sell as many concert tickets as you".

Still, at a time when Phish fans swallowed 36,000 tickets for that Vermont band's two year-end FleetCenter shows, it's hard to believe Blues Traveler drew only 3,000 to Northeastern's Matthews Arena Saturday. This is a group that packed the 2,800 seat Orpheum Theatre for three nights last fall, and led the H.O.R.D.E Festival to ruling status on the summer-shed scene.

Traveler did its part Saturday, shaking off the low attendence and shaky hockey-rink acoustics to build an ultimately stirring show that included several new songs.

To its advantage, the band wasn't as loud as usual, though the early, snaking windup of "Brother John" and "Crash Burn" was a blur, especially in singer John Popper's harmonica blasts. Indistinctive opening band Dear Liza had similar troubles, only cutting through the poor acoustics twice: when mandolin briefly replaced a sonically flat violin and during a closing hoedown.

However, when Traveler followed token radio charmer "Hook" with a first pair of songs in preparation for a new album, the group settled in. The mid-tempo "Carolina Blues" recalled Jethro Tull's early days as a blues band, and "The Gunfighter" slowed things down further, letting Popper shine with ribbony harp work before the band neatly segued into a playful cover of War's "Low Rider". The reflective "Mountains Win Again" also helped define the intuitive interplay amoung guitarist Chan Kinchla, drummer Brendan Hill and bassist Bobby Sheehan.

Two more new songs picked the near two-hour set up to speed. "Business As Usual" suggested a choppier "Brother John" with Popper rapping like a New Orleans hipster, and "Psycho Joe Goes to The Electric Chair" featured a jaunty melodic flow fleshed out by a keyboard-like harp texture.

Finally, as if Blues Traveler hadn't challenged fans with enough new material, the band followed a breezy "But Anyway" with "Traveler Suite", a 20-minute epic hitting magnificent peaks that ultimately matched an overly busy, oblique light show.

Popper donned a guitar for the entire suite, shifting from heartfelt crooning to edgy-voiced exhortations as the piece surged into churning momentum like the Greatful Dead's "The Other One". The stocky singer also added a pensive Garcia-like guitar lead in contrast to Kinchla's rock-riffing style, plus a harp solo that he turned into feedback by his amp a la Hendrix.

That seemed a statement that Blues Traveler can still rule the jamming roost, as well as dent the Top 40 runaround.

The band appears to be meeting the challenge for its next CD, which should help ticket sales as well.