"You guys haven't changed at all," I once told guitarist Chan
Kinchla after a particularly momentous Blues Traveler show. "You just
keep growing into what you've always been."
"That's the whole point," he shot back with a grin.
That particular exchange took place in May of '95, just as "Run-Around"
was burning into the 24/7 rotation that ultimately resulted in four
million albums sold for the band's breakthrough album, four. But
never has "the whole point" been underscored with such authority
as on Traveler's fifth studio release, Straight on Till Morning
(A&M), which distills their New York bar-band roots into the essence
of BT: 'Turn on, tune in and kick some ass!"
That credo has been operative since the late '80's, when John Popper's
hyperkinetic harmonica first created a chain reaction with Kinchla's
fractal-geometry guitar riffs, Bob Sheehan's deep-pocket bass and Brendan
Hill's implacable drums. Though their 1990 self-titled debut provided a
blueprint for the shape of things to come, both 1991's Travelers and
Thieves and 1993's Save His Soul, despite some strong
material, failed to translate Traveler's muscular live energy into
compelling studio albums. And while four proved they could tame
the studio beast, it was heavy on the BT lite, a venerable tradition that
dates back to "But Anyway." Straight is writ as large
as last year's live double CD, Live from the Fall - which only a
fan could (and did) love - but condenses that unscripted rawness to potent
effect, packing far more punch than four did.
Bookended by two instant classics that put the blues back in Traveler -
the kick-ass single "Carolina Blues" and the praise-the-Lord and
pass-the-ammunition gospelizer "Make My Way" - the album's centerpiece is
"Great Big World," which manages to compress all the hairpin turns and
near-collisions of an epic Traveler jam into a mere five-and-a-half
minutes. Singer-songwriter Popper continues his ongoing dialogue with
defense and desire, the former manifested in a matched-set pair of
libertarian rants; the pro-NRA "Business as Usual," on which he wields a
scat-rap bazooka, and the anti-death penalty "Psycho Joe," which wires you
to the electric chair with dissonant jolts. As for desire, it is at long
last fulfilled with three of the prettiest tracks in the BT canon: the
lilting "Felicia," the infectiously catchy "Canadian Rose" and the
There are, to be sure, a couple of tracks that exhibit Popper's worst
tendencies. Never has he philosophized more glibly than on "Battle of
Someone," and his more-is-more aesthetic of harp-playing and versifying is
only slightly tempered here. But such lapses are far outweighed by the
strength of the band as a whole. Whether you're a longtime fan or recent
convert, Straight on Till Morning is the Blues Traveler CD to
take to the proverbial desert island.