Apart from the band's annual Fourth of July show at Red Rocks, it's tough to imagine a better local setting for a Blues Traveler show than the eTown radio concert series on the Boulder Theatre stage. The intimate feel of the venue, the conversational structure of the show, the large and loyal Blues Traveler fanbase in the eTown audience -- all of these factors worked in the band's favor during its appearance in Boulder last night. It was an atmosphere that gave the quintet space to deliver its best-known hits, reflect on its 25-year history and cover some tunes that, judging from the standing ovations, resonated deeply.
That noteworthy crowd impact came outside the confines of a typical rock show. For the uninitiated: The structure of the eTown broadcast sees hosts Nick and Helen Forster welcoming musical guests to the Boulder Theatre stage for a weekly radio show, a program that's aired nationally and regularly features heavy hitters from the world of folk, rock and beyond. The format hearkens back to the golden days of radio. On Sunday, it offered an intimacy and immediacy that was well suited to the lighthearted and casual antics of Blues Traveler frontman John Popper.
After a short introductory film detailing eTown's history and the standard radio introductions by the Forster's, Blues Traveler offered well honed versions of two proven hits from the '90s, tunes included on the first disc of it new retrospective album, 25. Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Tad Kinchla, drummer Brendan Hill and keyboardist Ben Wilson delivered rousing renditions of "But Anyway" and "Runaround," with Popper delivering spates of dry, good-natured humor in between.
He cheered all of the "people in eTown," he commented on the plastic soundboard placed in front of Hill for the radio recording, noting "It's weird with your drummer in a cage." Despite a crack about the difficulty of performing in Boulder's high altitude, his dense harmonica work and bellowing vocals seemed no worse for the wear.
The pair of songs served as an intro for Nick Forster's interview with Popper and Hill, who delved into the band's history, starting with its formation in Princeton, New Jersey, and going into detail about its time in New York in the late '80s. The conversation included talk about the new compilation, hinted at the return of the H.O.R.D.E. music festival and talked about a new trance mix of "Runaround" featured on the second disc of the new album. The band finished its first appearance with a performance of "The Mountains Win Again," a tune penned by original Blues Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan, who died in 1999. It wasn't tough to spot fans singing along in the front row.
Texas-based blues and folk musician Ruthie Foster came next, delivering a forceful set of original tunes and creative covers. The native of Gause, Texas, fused traditional R&B cues with contemporary sound contours in original songs like "Aim For the Heart" and "Let It Burn." With Nick Forster's crisp blues guitar and Helen Forster's sterling backup vocals behind her, Forster gave an emotive and evocative performance, with her powerful and nuanced vocals showing clear signs of formal training. A contemporary take on Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" was another highlight of Foster's set, and her explosive finale drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
Popper marveled at Foster's performance when Blues Traveler returned to the stage and launched into "The Poignant and Epic Saga of Featherhead and Lucky Lack," a selection from the disc of B-sides and rarities on 25. An effort in expansive musical storytelling, the tune featured dense, image-heavy lyrics from Popper, balanced by stretches of harmonica solos and sparse, elegant accompaniment from the rest of the band.
From there, the group shifted toward a less ambitious format for its final two songs. In a cover selection that seemed especially fitting for the Boulder crowd, the band played an energetic version of Sublime's "What I Got," a tune that drew dancing and sing-alongs from the audience. A similar effect came with the band's speedy rendition of "Hook," with casual and hardcore fans showing similar enthusiasm for the band's most recognizable hit.
A standing ovation followed before the Forsters, the eTown house band and Ruthie Foster joined Blues Traveler onstage for an earnest version of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry." Again, the selection seemed a good choice for the crowd and the setting. Young and old audience members alike broke into a singalong for the first verse from Foster and the second from Popper.
By the time the final refrain of "Everything's gonna be all right" rang out, even the crowd in the balcony could be heard belting out the lyrics. The crowd may not have been as numerous as the typical audience for a Fourth of July Blues Traveler show at Red Rocks, but it certainly seemed just as energetic and enthusiastic.
Personal Bias: Even though Blues Traveler only had the space to play six songs, I would have liked to hear a tune from 1991's Travelers and Thieves.
Random Detail: According to John Popper, if the earth escapes the doom of the Mayan apocalypse in 2012, the H.O.R.D.E musical festival will return in 2013.
By the way: One of Popper's stated future goals is to collaborate with Prince.
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