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Souls warm to Blues Traveler
by Chad Pata
Honolulu Advertiser, Honolulu, HI
Nov 18th, 2001

Occasionally in life, the critic becomes a fan. That moment came last night at the Waikiki Shell where Blues Traveler amazed a crowd of several thousand with a three-hour set and some local accompaniment.

Like all of us, Blues Traveler has changed over the years. Fortunately, theirs has been for the better.

Gone is the obese, sweating frontman John Popper who could dazzle with the harmonica and slur his way through some lyrics. Enter new svelte Popper, healthier, happier and showing the vocal range of a male Nina Simone.

They lost bassist Bobby Sheehan to drugs and added Tad Kinchla on bass and Ben Wilson on keyboards.

The change is remarkable. If it was 30 years earlier, the Doors would be opening for them.

Starting right on time at 7 p.m. they played only six songs before taking their first break. The time: 8:02 p.m. No song lasted less than nine minutes; Jerry Garcia would have been proud.

The song "You Reach Me" off their new album "Bridge" showcased some of the changes. Kinchla's bass style is known as "popping" (think Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers). It adds a funk aspect to their sound that gives it a modern edge.

They contrast that with Wilson's turn on the keyboards that reminds you of Ray Manzarek wailing away in some old Doors video. The result is a blend that pleased everyone attending.

The draw for Blues Traveler has always been Popper's harmonica. Who can forget his solo turn in the 1999 World Series belting out the National Anthem with just his harp?

He duels with his bandmates with it, and wins. At times last night he handled it like a mystical lute, lightly flitting in and out of the chorus. Next thing you know, it's roaring over Chan Kinchla's guitar demanding to be noticed.

After 20 minutes for the fans to catch their breath, BT blazed back in with their version of zydeco with "Stand."

Not above pranks however, Popper started into the opening chords of their Grammy Award-winning "Run-Around" but then completely changed the pace of the song.

Instead of the usual pop, sugary sweet riffs everyone knew, it became a Neil Young song with Meatloaf on vocals. The crowd cheered but found themselves at a loss as how to dance to it.

The whole intensity of the night took a violent leap upward with the next addition to the stage when Popper announced that ukulele player "Jake Shimabu... Shibak.... Jake!" should come to the stage.

What happened next will be talked about in Hawai'i for years to come. Jake Shimabukuro and Popper had a showdown reminiscent of Robert Johnson and the Devil at the proverbial crossroads.

Every lightning stroke from Shimabukuro's ukulele was matched by ear-splitting notes from Popper's harmonica. To look at the crowd, you would have thought they were at the UH/Fresno State game from the excitement they were emitting.

It ended with Shimabukuro bowing to Popper's greatness, but as far as this reporter could tell, no souls were exchanged.

Shimabukuro finished up the set with them, playing a medley of their own songs and parts of other alternative classic such as Beck's "Loser" and the Violent Femmes "Blister in the Sun."

Finally, Popper gave the fans what they wanted and set them away with the true version of "Run-Around." On a night when stars were seen falling from the sky, some lucky guests got to watch one of their own rise with some of rock's greats.