For the 26th time in 28 years, Blues Traveler returned to Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Sunday for their annual Independence Day celebration. Although it was the Fourth of July, the band and crowd celebrated freedom on a number of levels outside of the national holiday, including freedom from COVID, from masks, from isolation. With the exception of a one-off benefit gig in the spring, this show also marked the band’s return to the stage since March of 2020 and if all of this wasn’t enough to bring the energy in the pillared vault to a head, the band also recently announced a July 30th release date of their 14th studio creation Traveler’s Blues, comprised of a collection of blues standards that boasts to host a number of great names in music, including Warren Haynes, John Scofield, Keb’ Mo' and more. For those who have followed the black cat for the last 35 years and always saved the 4th of July for Blues Traveler, this concoction of absence, awaiting, and the promise of new material on their first night back in over a year would be just the right ingredients to make a special night both magical and memorable as the band reclaimed their saved seat at the Red Rocks table.
Hitting the parking lot around 4 pm, lines were already forming at multiple entrances to the venue with the greatest gathering being in the upper south lot. The first two guys in line, present and alone, were literally a tale of two cities. The first being a native of the Denver area who had seen enough shows at Red Rocks that he couldn’t place the first time he had seen a show there, while the second being a recent transplant from Chicago, newly relocated to Colorado Springs who had never seen Blues Traveler nor an event at the venue. About 30 deep into the line was a group of 6 from Wisconsin who had made their way from the upper Midwest to the Rockies to cross Red Rocks off of their bucket list and had been fans of the band for a long time. With ear-to-ear smiles, they happily discussed their history, being friends since their youth and had continued their friendships into adulthood. With occupations in manufacturing, the group expressed how they had always wanted to attend the July 4th BT shows, but always put it off and that the pandemic shutdown had helped them re-evaluate their musical priorities and already, standing in the red dirt parking lot on a partly cloudy mid-seventies day, they were already living their dream. The line contained faces of every decade and everyone seemed happy enough just to be outside, but with the promise of music in the near future, from child to geriatric, one could already feel the tingling of anticipation.
The opener of the night was Robert Finley, a 67-year-old bluesman heralding out of Louisiana who fit the bill to the tee: a voice brimming with gruff and growl, black wide brimmed hat, and a smile a mile long. Accompanied by a strong trio and his daughter on back-up vocals, Finley took the crowd to church and got the whole place up on its feet, hands waving in the air, within the first few minutes of his 45-minute set. Of particular note was his vocal range, especially at the altitude of Morrison, and being able to deliver on the soulful low end while reaching for, obtaining, and carrying the falsetto with ease, for extended periods of time, all the while showing no sign of needing a break or moment to catch his breath. His tunes came one after another and the only thing bigger than his passion was his smile that he wore from start to finish.
At a bit past nine, the main event took the stage. Popper came center place and gave a call to arms, “Red Rocks!!!!!!!!!!!!” as the crowd echoed back in excitement, the house lights lighting the crowd top to bottom, giving the band the opportunity to pose for a group photo with 10,000 fans as a backdrop. Popper continued, humorously stating “We’re sorry we are about a year late. A funny thing happened on the way to the Rocks last year…” Popper continued, “On behalf of CNN, I am authorized to declare normalcy in America. Good work everybody! Nothing left to worry about”, a remark that had the rest of the band laughing, while the crowd called back with unintelligible frenetic energy, anxiously awaiting the floodgates of sound to open.
With an electrified audience in tow, the band glanced at each other one final time and tore off with an over-the-top version and appropriate choice in “Things Are Looking Up” to get things going. It was clear that the band was ready for their return to the stage and with the sound dialed in, they laid out the first grinding groove of the night, grit filled and dirty, and demonstrated that they had only aged better with the time away. Without a pause, the Brothers Kinchla ripped into “Save His Soul” with Ben Wilson taking over midway on the keys, showing his ability to get weird as he shifted between major and minor phrases while mutating between clean piano sounds, distorted synth, and finally taking it higher with the Leslie effect and an organ solo that ended with the band dropping right into “Runaround” without missing a beat.
At the finish of “Runaround”, Popper paused the festivities for a moment and filled the crowd in on that the band had been working on a new album during the pandemic. Popper continued, asking the audience to help him welcome the evening’s opener vocal powerhouse and blues elder Robert Finley to the stage to join the group for their first rendition ever of the blues standard “Ball and Chain”. Throughout the song, line after line was delivered by Finley and his delivery met Popper’s at every turn, and although he stood a few decades deeper than the band’s leader, his talent showed no signs of waning or fatigue, grinning ear to ear as he belted out the lyrics with every part of his soul. At the tune’s end, the crowd thanked Finley with a standing ovation for his contribution while Popper stated “Wow! That is a true voice right there!”, lighting the crowd up again in agreement.
Keeping the energy rolling, the band moved quickly into a ferocious take of “Mulling It Over," hard driving and thumping. Halfway through, the piece slowed and took on a watery, spacey dynamic and the band members wove in and out of the head for multiple measures with marked improvisation before returning to the final stanza of lyrics. Again, and without notice, the band changed direction with another fan favorite “But Anyway” that kept the quick tempo of the set firing on all cylinders. Five songs in, it was clear that the band had not wasted time at home getting rusty, but rather had stayed sharp and well oiled, prepared for their return.
Being the candid conversationalist he is, Popper addressed the fans again and thanked CNN for broadcasting part of the show. He reflected on the year and his hat, informing the crowd, as he looked at his black, chrome-banded hat, that 2020 was the year he was supposed to wear this hat. He continued, telling the crowd how much the band had missed the fans and that all their performances over the last three decades were really all about the fans. With that final sentiment, he flung his hat with great verve, swinging for the rafters, but alas fell short, landing the head covering somewhere between rows one and two and commented with insincere frustration,” Worst throw ever”. With his head now being equitable to that American symbol of freedom, the bald eagle, Popper performed his best Hendrix-esque “Star Spangled Banner”, riddled with distortion and feedback to the delight of the crowd.
At the national anthem’s shrill ending, the band glided softly into the familiar ballad “Mountains Win Again”, and as expected being in the Rockies, the crowd responded to the mountain reference and their Fourth of July staple with a quiet joy, smiling, swaying, and taking their first break from what can only be described as a high-octane infusion up until this point.
At its close, Popper returned to the microphone and waxed on the fact that this was the band’s first gig back and, in the band’s minds, the question that the audience is asking was,” Do you guys still got it?”. Popper continued, stating that “We pretty much have shown you what we got, except for Chan, and what everyone wants to know (Chan) is “Do you still got it?”. Chan looked out to the crowd, and without hesitation he simply said, “Yeah” and went into Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance," taking lead vocals and changing the opening lyrics to “she was born in a Colorado town," eliciting a strong reaction from everyone who caught it.
A standard “Conquer Me” followed the cover and at its sweet resolution, Popper and Chan departed the stage, leaving Ben Wilson, Brendan Hill, and Tad Kinchla to showcase their talents. Laying out a swirling melody, the trio jammed for over 8 minutes, each pushing the other, and showing everyone their stand-alone chemistry, which, simply put, was amazing, proficient, and a spectacle within itself.
Shifting gears again, Tad, Chan, and Hill left the stage, while Wilson remained at the keys and supported Popper’s return with a moving and emotional “Ode from the Aspect," which Popper dedicated to the fans and his daughter prior to his absolute deep execution of this evocative piece.
To close out the two hour single set, the band tore it up in all the right ways with a great take on “What’s For Breakfast” which segued into a thunderous and blurred drum solo from the live wire Brenden Hill, who, like the rest of the band after all this passed time, showed no signs of pause or weariness, and eventually landed the whole of the locale into the finishing favorite “Hook”, complete with a full audience singalong.
Exiting for only a moment, the band returned to the calls and chants for more, smiles displayed in every direction and all eyes focused stage side. To send everyone out with a bang, the band unleashed another debut in one more track from their upcoming studio release in the well-known Son Seals’ blues tune “Funky Bitch," which was immediately recognized and gave everyone one last chance to expend whatever bit of energy they had left in danceable abandon. Pushing curfew already, at the songs final note, the house lights came up immediately, and the dazed and enthused crowd was set free into the night to regale their tales with the five-headed black cat that had crossed their path and left them enchanted and in awe.
From the first notes to the end, the sandstone surroundings shook with the synergy of the band and crowd as Popper ripped out line after line of ridiculous harmonica lines while the band pushed the groove down the auditory road in a fashion that neither reflected anytime off the road nor 35 years of exhaustive touring. The band seemed genuine in its gratitude towards the audience and the time away from the reflective faces probably emphasized to them how lucky they were to have received the welcome they got time and time again, especially under the grandeur of those iconic columns. In all honesty, no weak link was detected throughout the night and the fact that John Popper is able to sing unceasingly at this altitude all the while oscillating like a machine through the mouth organ makes his talent not only distinguishable but show stopping and nothing short of incredible. The whole of the band is also an unstoppable force in and of themselves. From the start of the show to its close, Tad Kinchla’s physical workout on stage is only surpassed by his digital agility, his fingers moving in triple time over what his body is doing. Chan Kinchla also makes good on the family name, effortlessly and unceasingly laying out a constituent of unbroken sound, cycling between rhythm and lead with a kiddish grin, especially when interacting directly with those lucky enough to get sat in front of him. Ben Wilson plays as though he has extra appendages and the grimaces he carries especially when going deep in the grime reflect that he truly feels the music being channeled through him. Although he can conceive in the dark, his ability to lilt and bend heart and emotion makes him a great compliment and juxtaposed balance to the band’s sound, providing that gentle touch that contributes to the uniqueness of the band. Master resonator and the pulse of the group, Brenden Hill is more myth than man, embodying the raw energy of Thor the god of thunder while keeping the path on track as Kronos the god of time. He is also able to subdue the primal, slowing meter and tempering magnitude, all the while listening with ears wide open for the change. Seeing the band once again invigorated this listener to the magic Blues Traveler brings to the stage. They are far from a one-trick pony and swing it as hard as any rock and roll band while adding enough improvisation to produce the awe. It is great to see that after 35 years, this brotherhood of talent shows no signs of stopping and seem to feel right at home where they are. Although most believe that if a black cat crosses your path it leads to bad luck, in the case of this feline, it is highly recommended that you do not avoid the intersection, but rather run right for it and prepare for the fortuitous result of the unexpected.