For Blues Traveler, 1992 was a year to forget. An eager,
improv-hungry, neo-retro band that long ago dubbed their endless
cross-country trekking "On Tour Forever," BT retreated
to their New York homebase following vocalist John Popper's
debilitating motorcycle accident late last summer and cheered
from the sidelines as road-warrior compatriots, the Spin Doctors,
lit up the charts.
Ironically, the layoff has served Blues Traveler well. A few
months holed up in the studio producing album number three, Save
His Soul (due mid-April), left BT eager to please the
hometown crowd that crammed into the Paramount Theatre in
Manhattan on New Year's Eve. Popper, confined to a wheelchair and
resembling an energized Ironside, rolled out to centerstage and
wasted little time in brandishing his trademark harmonica. The
band was so into the groove that the official end of the year
came and went without notice. Five minutes later, the band paused
as their mascot, a leather-clad cool cat, drove a Harley across
the stage and "recreated" Popper's crash in the wings.
Keeping a promise he made earlier in the day to stand up at
midnight (give or take a few clock ticks), Popper grimaced and
rose out of his chair, waving to the merrymaking audience as the
confetti dropped and the champagne flowed - mostly onto the fans
packed tight down front.
BT then charged into the rest of a 16-song, two-and-a-half-hour
set that drew heavily on both familiar and new material. The key
to the band's onstage magic is the intertwining of Popper's
virtuosic harp blasts with guitarist Chan Kinchla's rawhide
riffing. Kinchla, whose waist-length hair swayed back and forth
like the cleaning flaps in a car wash, wrangled his gleaming red
Strat through familiar 10-minutes-and-change marvels like
"Mulling It Over" and "Crystal Flame." Other
times, as on the ball-busting "Sweet Talking Hippie,"
he'd fall back in the mix to let Popper scat.
While the band's established repertoire works in the improv
groove department, the new material offered much tighter
arrangements, ranging from the low-key "Letter From A
Friend" and "Defense & Desire" to the
half-beat-shy-of-reggae "Go Outside & Drive."
Hours after the 2 a.m. encore - a double-time reading of
"Johnny B. Goode" - Kinchla waxed optimistic over BT's
first taste of '93. "Thank God the energy level was there,
because Lord knows we missed a few cues," he laughed.
"Overall, though, the show was loose and dynamic and I'm
pumped to hit the road again for a long stretch." Now
there's some good new-year's news for fellow Travelers.