By Andy J. Gordon
Two bands that may be headed in different directions joined forces for a show at the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles on November 13, 2018. One band is a group of grizzled veterans that has been releasing albums and putting in long hours on the road with nearly constant touring for thirty years. The other is an upstart soul and funk group of twentysomethings that are loaded with energy and ready to take on the world.
Blues Traveler is that veteran group, the still-popular band that headlined the show. They rode the opening-act energy wave generated by Con Brio, the young upstarts. Con Brio came out of the San Francisco Bay Area funk scene and have been making waves on the festival circuit with their explosive live show, dynamic lead vocalist and tight horn arrangements. Ziek McCarter is the energizer bunny frontman for Con Brio. His powerful vocals, James Brown-like dance moves and sultry stage persona lead a seven-piece group of talented musicians.
The band recently released Explorer, their second full-length album and are testing out some of the new tracks during their live shows. One of the catchy new soul tunes is called “High Spirits.” Keyboardist Patrick Monaco Glynn played a foot-stomping riff while bassist Jonathan Kirchner and drummer Andrew Laubacher filled in with a thumping rhythm. McCarter jumped in with the catchy lyrics as he bounced around the stage.
A rearranged, soul-infused cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” has been a standard during their live shows going back to at least 2015. They recorded it for the new album and performed it live at the Belasco Theater. The audience initially did not know what to make of the rearranged grunge classic, but quickly got into the groove of the new funkified, soul version. Many sang along with McCarter.
Two songs from 2015s Kiss The Sun EP provided opportunities for the other band members to shine. Guitarist Benjamin Andrews played a sultry solo on “Give It All.” Marcus Stephens played a funky, heavily distorted saxophone solo during “Never Be the Same,” Stephens and trumpeter Brendan Liu played amazing horn duets all set. The hour-long show flew by and the crowd would have been happy with more tunes, but Con Brio had to relinquish the stage to Blues Traveler.
Led by the dynamic vocals and inventive harmonica playing of John Popper, Blues Traveler is one of the earliest jam bands and their music is rooted in blues rock. Popper and drummer Brendan Hill formed the band in high school in Princeton, New Jersey, in the mid-1980s. Guitarist Chan Kinchla joined the band about that time and soon after bassist Bobby Sheehan came aboard. Sheehan died in 1999 and Chan Kinchla’s younger brother Tad took over as the permanent bassist. In 2000, Ben Wilson was added as a permanent keyboard player. That lineup has stayed together through 2018.
The band spearheaded the highly popular H.O.R.D.E. touring festival in the early 1990s and they also performed at Woodstock ‘94. They played on Saturday Night Live multiple times and their songs have been used on several film soundtracks. In 1999, John Popper had a heart attack and emergency surgery to correct an artery blockage. The band was forced to take a hiatus.
The band switched record labels a few times through the 2000s but continued to put out new music and tour. During that time, they were featured on VH1’s Behind the Music, A&E’s Private Sessions and Austin City Limits. Popper had gastric bypass surgery and lost a lot of weight. He also had surgery to repair collapsed vertebrae in his neck, causing the band to cancel several shows. Their 2017 tour celebrated the 30th anniversary of the group’s formation.
In October 2018, the band released their thirteenth studio album called Hurry Up and Hang Around. They performed some of the new material at the Belasco Theater show. They opened the set with “Sweet Talking Hippie” from their self-titled debut album released in 1990. Unfortunately, Popper’s vocals seemed strained. Years of well-known health issues may be taking a toll on his voice, but his harmonica playing is still fantastic. He blasted solos the entire show to the delight of the audience. The band followed the opener with a cover of Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Popper left the stage a few times during the show and needed help getting off and onstage. While he rested, the band played some exploratory instrumentals that showcased their impressive music chops. During the first instrumental sequence, Chan Kinchla teased the distinctive guitar riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick.” Tad Kinchla, Ben Wilson and Brendan Hill each had a showcasing solo segment at key moments in the set.
The loudest applause was reserved for one of the band’s biggest hits – after a hard-rocking instrumental segment, the band launched into “Run Around.” The audience loudly sang along and Popper played the familiar harmonica sequence. Another crowd pleaser came when Chan Kinchla started playing the familiar opening guitar melody from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Popper was nearly drowned out by the enthusiastic singing from the audience.
The beautiful ballad “Mountains Win Again” from 1994s Four album had people singing along and then a hard-driving instrumental led into their first radio hit “But Anyway” from their self-titled album of 1990. When the song ended, Popper introduced singer/songwriter Katrina Woolverton, who opened for Popper on a 2017 solo tour. She came out to sing a duet of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that had everyone swaying and singing along.
As the set was ending, the band brought out Con Brio guitarist Benjamin Andrews, who joined for a powerful version of “Carolina Blues” from 1997s Straight On Till Morning. Andrews and Chan Kinchla traded guitar solos while Popper wailed on his harmonica. As Andrews left the stage, Brendan Hill performed a heart-pounding drum solo leading into the set closing “Hook” from the Four album.
The band left the stage to loud applause and came back quickly. Popper thanked the audience for supporting live music. As he introduced the band members, each did a short solo. Popper then gave props to Con Brio and brought out Ziek McCarter, Marcus Stephens and Brendan Liu for a rousing cover of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved.” McCarter took over lead vocals and bounced around the stage as the combined band played the infectious beat. The show ended on a high note.
On paper, it may not seem that Con Brio and Blues Traveler would be a good combination. However, each has a strong improvisational groove and an impressive stage show. The contrast between McCarter’s booming vocals and acrobatic moves versus Popper’s vocal struggles and immobility is striking. Con Brio looks like they have a long and successful future. With Popper’s questionable health and hard to replace skills, it seems that Blues Traveler is near the end of their road. Best to see them live while they are still out there. It may not last much longer.