Blues Traveler, Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, Manchester, TN- 6/17
For the first time since the festival’s inception, H.O.R.D.E. founders Blues Traveler took to the stage at this summer’s Bonnaroo. In a congested Saturday evening time slot (conflicting with Beck, Cyprus Hill, Medeski, Martin & Wood, and Bonnaroo staple Les Claypool), all eyes were not on This Tent, but that did not slow Blues Traveler down; it was clear that the band had come to Manchester with the express purpose of leaving a significant mark. Guitarist Chan Kinchla’s shirt read “L.A. is For Pussies,” but that was not the set’s only expression of New York attitude. Indeed, the gritty, hard-driving show brought passion with an edge, an “you’re either with us or your not” kind of drive. As a result, those that boarded the Blues Traveler freight train and dedicated their Saturday evening to the New York jam pioneers were rewarded handsomely with a powerful set.
Sound problems plagued the opening of the show with the vocals hard to hear and Popper’s harmonica microphone (of all things) malfunctioning, but the band played through them. The crowd seemed ready and anxious to move their feet, but slightly distracted by the technical difficulties. As a result, the furiously energetic opening few songs “Freedom,” “After What,” and “NY Prophesie” were robbed of much of their effectiveness. Blues Traveler played them with their signature take-no-prisoners fire, but the set’s opening was just a bit tainted.
By the fourth song, however, the sound problems were cleared up and the set hit its stride with a blistering cover of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Popper’s harmonica masterfully took the place of Charlie Daniel’s fiddle as the band rocked through the song at break-neck speed. Kinchla and Popper played off each other well, as Kinchla’s guitar played the Devil’s solo and Popper’s harp answered on the part of Johnny. There was an unmistakable gleam in Popper’s eye and added feeling to his voice as he sang, “Well my name’s Johnny and it might be a sin, but I’ll take your bet and your gonna regret because I’m the best there’s ever been.”
The pace slowed a bit and turned to more of a funky groove as “Can’t Win True Love” followed. The crowd responded well to the relatively new song, but roared as the band segued into “But Anyway.” The song was played with a bit of added funk that the audience clearly appreciated and which carried over into a cover of Steve Miller’s “The Joker.” G-Love joined the band mid-way through “The Joker” to sing a few verses and trade harmonica licks with Popper. “But Anyway” and “The Joker” took the energy of the tent down a few notches but didn’t reduce the fun of the crowd. The set list rode a wave of energy beginning at the crest and masterfully moving through the “The Joker” down to the slow ballad “The Mountains Win Again.”
Soon “Mountains” Kinchla’s guitar announced the return of the fast-paced high energy. After playing a scorching solo for a solid minute and a half, Kinchla was joined by the rest of the band for an intense “Carolina Blues.” The strong and bluesy rendition quickly brought the crowd back to life and began the show’s endgame which would see the freight train again at full speed.
After “You Lost Me There,” which gave the talented Tad Kinchla a chance to show off his bass chops, an extended “Brother John” turned This Tent into an all out party. The song easily the highlight of the set began slow and gradually built to a fiery level of energy. Popper’s solo, which may very well be the most energetic in the Blues Traveler catalogue, drove the crowd to its highest level of passion. The song seamlessly and fittingly segued into “Shout,” which featured loud call and responses and corresponding dancing from the crowd. “Shout” segued back into the close of “Brother John” which was quickly followed a powerful “Run Around” that could very well have served as the set’s close. Blues Traveler, however, was not yet finished. The freight train went into overdrive with “Crash & Burn,” which gave the band the opportunity to pass quick-hitting solos around the stage. The set then came to a close after “Crash & Burn” segued into “Hook” and the crowd loudly and joyfully (and somewhat ironically considering the lyrics) sang along with Popper as the potent hour and a half set ended at an even higher crest than where it had begun.
Blues Traveler came to Bonnaroo with the intention of driving through their set with an unforgettable and unqualified energy and those who crowded into This Tent on Saturday evening bore witness to a commanding rock and roll show.