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Blues Traveler concert drags
by Elizabeth Lucas
The Michigan Daily, Ann Arbor, MI
Nov 18th, 1996

Harmonicas: Not just for polka bands anymore.

If anyone still questions the truth of this statement, last Wednesday's Blues Traveler concert at Hill Auditorium proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Most of the evening was a laid-back blues-rock fest, but unfortunately, the opening act introduced a jarring pop-radio influence to the show. This was the Wallflowers, a pop band best known for the single "Sixth Avenue Heartache." Audience members unfamiliar with the group's other work, however, were not at a disadvantage. As it turned out, every song of the Wallflowers' set was reminiscent of "Sixth Avenue Heartache" - simple backbeat, strained rhymes and a slow, melodic pace. The group drew some comparisons to the Gin Blossoms, but without that band's more interesting lyrics and poppy, infectious qualities.

One intriguing aspect of the Wallflowers' performance, though, was the crowd response. The group's set was punctuated by enthusiastic screams and exhortations to "Play 'Hollywood,'" a request that the band did not oblige. As the Wallflowers' mediocre performance was met with uncritical crowd adoration, the scene resembled nothing so much as a New Kids on the Block concert, back in the day.

A half-hour intermission gave time to ponder this chilling thought. Luckily, Blues Traveler began its set with "But Anyway," a fast-paced, catchy song that provided a good distraction from Donnie Wahlberg flashbacks. In what became a pattern for the evening, the band played the first two verses, then paused for an instrumental jam, led by frontman and harmonica-meister John Popper.

As the evening went on, it became apparent that the Wallflowers - and many other current bands - could learn a lot from Blues Traveler. Like the Wallflowers', most of Blues Traveler's songs were similar: harmonica solos, simple, repeated refrains and a basic verse-chorus-verse structure. In live performance, they kept to this pattern, only extending the instrumental bridges. However, Blues Traveler managed to make every song sound different and new, even when playing well-known pieces like "Hook" and "Stand."

One reason this happened was the band's mix of music. As on their 1994 album four, Blues Traveler alternated slower songs like "The Mountains Win Again" with faster, blues-influenced songs like "Fallible." The band played several new songs, nearly all of which were bluesy, highly instrumental pieces. Titled "Carolina Blues," "Last Night I Dreamed" and "Great Big World," these will probably be heard on an album in the near future.

Hearing covers of songs is usually a good reason to go to a live performance, and Blues Traveler didn't disappoint here, either. A few songs into the first half of the evening, the stage went dark, and Popper played a harmonica version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," reprising his performance of it during the World Series. The first half concluded with a cover of "Low Rider," and at the end of the night, Blues Traveler encored with a subdued version of "Imagine."

The one fault of the performance was seen in the second half. At this point in what turned out to be a four-and-a-half-hour show, the crowd was simply worn out, though it managed to revive its enthusiasm when "The Mountains Win Again" and "Run-Around" played. Blues Traveler followed up "Run-Around" with a half-hour instrumental jam that would have been much more engaging at a shorter length. As it was, much of the audience simply tuned out, or left the auditorium altogether.

Overall, the evening was a mix of contrasts, which perhaps is the true appeal of Blues Traveler shows. Slow and fast songs; traditional rock instruments and harmonicas; simple song patterns and instrumental riffs; frat boys and aging hippies ... none of these would seem to harmonize well together, but somehow they did. Unlike many lesser bands, Blues Traveler demonstrated the ability to synthesize many diverse elements, and to provide a unique, energetic show at the same time.