Blues Traveler at the Belasco
When Blues Traveler last played the Belasco, in 2017, the quintet arrived under the banner of the group’s 30th anniversary. Now, a year later, the band was back at the gorgeous downtown Los Angeles theatre having just released a new studio album. While this return visit came ostensibly in support of the band’s latest, Hurry Up and Hang Around, the two-hour set was marked more by a retrospective of Traveler’s three-decade success than an overt push of the new material.
In fact, Traveler’s de facto leader, John Popper, told the eager crowd as he stepped to the mic that they would be starting the show with an old song, then struck up the imploring blues of “Sweet Talking Hippie” from the band’s debut way back in 1990. Popper’s trademark harmonica bursts whistled through the tempo shifts, double-timing into the Charlie Daniels Band hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” It was the first of several covers, next taking on Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” that emerged after “Things are Looking Up” and the first nod to the new record with the funkified thump of “The Wolf Is Bumpin’.”
The Zep instrumental became a showcase vehicle for the supersonic bass explorations of Tad Kinchla, one of a few moments throughout the night spotlighting Traveler’s always notable musicianship. One of Popper’s own improvisational runs on harmonica followed, touching down with the familiar notes of “Run-Around,” and collecting a unanimous reaction of cheers from the Belasco crowd. The chart-topper led to “The Touch She Has,” another new cut from Hurry Up that dovetailed into another cover; this one, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” carried by guitarist Chad Kinchla’s rugged lead vocal.
The show’s second-half was an array of warhorses, homages, and guests ignited by Ben Wilson’s keyboard soliloquy sparking the spreading inferno of “NY Prophesie,” as Popper and Chad tore through Brendan Hill’s staggering drum breaks. “The Mountains Win Again” allowed everyone a pause, with Popper drawing every ounce of emotion from the pensive ballad before the band’s first hit “But Anyway” and it’s forever catchy chord progression sprang to life. An extended “Carolina Blues” welcomed guitarist Benjamin Andrews from Con Brio, the bill’s opening band, speaking the blues with Chad, and with Popper, before “Hook,” and its breakneck pace, gave the singer all he could handle, navigating the twisting lyric to a climatic finish.
Then another breather and another guest as Katrina Woolverton joined the frontman for an arm-in-arm reading of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The encore also invited three from Con Brio, with singer Ziek McCarter leading the more-funky-soul-than-reggae interpretation of the Bob Marley and the Wailers’ classic “Could You Be Loved” as the evening’s finale.
After all is said and done, Blues Traveler stills performs as if without a net, still makes each appearance, regardless of its pretense, an adventure in the moment. They are a rock band that continues to excite with their most popular hits, yet always takes plenty of chances. They are, after 31 years, an intently focused, incredibly loose quintet hanging around and having a whole lot of fun.