Chan Kinchla - guitar; John Popper - vocals, harmonica, acoustic guitar; Bobby Sheehan - bass; Brendan Hill - drums, percussion; Guest: Carlos Santana - guitar on "Mountain Cry"
Formed by four New Jersey friends who attended Princeton High School, Blues Traveler would become one of the hottest sensations on the New York City club circuit and soon be recognized nationally as one of the guiding lights of the new wave of jam bands in the 1990s. Upon high-school graduation, all four relocated to Brooklyn, where front man John Popper and the rhythm section of bassist Bobby Sheehan and drummer Brendan Hill enrolled in the music program at the progressive New School. Guitarist Chan Kinchla was meanwhile enrolled at NYU. The four pooled their resources, along with Chris Barron, front man for The Spin Doctors, sharing an apartment and often sharing gigs at local clubs and frat parties. The group developed a loyal local following and soon became popular fixtures at The Wetlands.
Attracting the attention of David Graham (son of rock promoter and music management entrepreneur Bill Graham), they would soon become one of Graham's most promising young acts, expanding their fan base through relentless touring up and down the East Coast college and club circuit. Upon hearing the group perform before a wildly enthusiastic hometown crowd at The Wetlands, an A & M Records scout pursued the band and signed them to their initial recording contract with the label. With assistance from their friend Joan Osbourne, who contributed background vocals on a couple of tracks, Blues Traveler recorded their self-titled debut album in 1990. Despite it not capturing the improvisational adventurousness of the band on stage, the manic intensity of John Popper's harmonica playing and the tight ensemble playing by the entire band was quite apparent on the debut, which became a fixture on the influential college radio scene of the time. One of the most exuberant Popper/Kinchla-penned tracks, "But Anyway," received widespread college airplay and eventually became a hit, leading to television appearances and national exposure. No one was more instrumental in exposing Blues Traveler to a larger audience than late night TV host David Letterman, who invited the group to appear on his show more than any other group before or since.
With the future looking brighter than ever, the group released their follow-up the next year, with 1991's Travelers And Thieves. On this sophomore effort, the group really began hitting their stride and this album captured some of the improvisational fervor that the group produced on stage. The songwriting craftsmanship displayed far more maturity on this album, with Popper contributing more alluring lyrics and the group displaying an infectious melodic flair. The album also contained "Mountain Cry," a new epic blues-influenced composition that featured Gregg Allman as a guest. The band never sounded more cohesive and, despite containing no hits, Travelers And Thieves deservedly has become one of the group's most enduring and universally praised releases.
All of which makes this Blues Traveler concert, recorded at Ben & Jerry's One World, One Heart Festival in Golden Gate Park, so enjoyable. Capturing the group shortly after the release of Travelers And Thieves and with none other than Carlos Santana joining in on the epic "Mountain Cry," this recording literally captures the band at the most promising moment in their career. Tragedy would soon strike with the death of their manager and mentor Bill Graham mere weeks after this gig, but here on this beautiful day in San Francisco's legendary park, arguably the true epicenter of the entire jamband phenomenon, Blues Traveler are in fine form. Performing material from the new album, as well as three key numbers from their debut, this recording goes a long way in capturing the early magic of Blues Traveler on stage.
The set kicks off with two of the most remarkable songs from the band's new album, beginning with Popper's "Sweet Pain." This ballad signifies Popper's songwriting hitting a new maturity level and contains one of his most poignant lyrics. Clocking in at eight minutes, this also allows the band to warm up a bit, while Popper ruminates on growing up and growing older, prior to inviting Carlos Santana to join them on stage. This second number written by Hill, "Mountain Cry," is a band tour-de-force and, with the addition of Santana's burning guitar work, is arguably the highlight of this set. An epic blues featuring plenty of improvisation, this shows everyone involved in a most positive light and the composition burns brightly for a solid twenty minutes. This performance was so outstanding that the band included an alternate mix of it on the limited edition On Tour Forever EP release (only ten thousand copies were issued as a tribute to Bill Graham, packaged as a double CD also containing the Traveler And Thieves album the following year).
Following such an extraordinary performance must have been daunting, but Blues Traveler continue to delight the San Francisco audience with a pair of Kinchla/Popper numbers from their debut album. The band delivers the catchy and humorous "Mulling It Over" which segues directly into their infectious hit, "But Anyway." These songs epitomize what was so enticing about the band. The musicians' enthusiasm is obvious and the tight collaborative ensemble playing is extraordinary, particularly during the improvisational segue from one song to the other. Although everything is propelled by the deep grooves of the rhythm section and Kinchla proves equally adept at biting lead fills and crunchy power-chord strumming, it is the manic intensity of Popper's harmonica work that puts this music over the top. Popper plays like a man possessed and while he occasionally lacks emotional resonance, his technical virtuosity is undeniable.
The band continues with an early concise reading of "What's For Breakfast," an unreleased (at the time) Popper/Sheehan collaboration, that would eventually surface on their live album in 1996, before heading for the home stretch with "Sweet Taking Hippie." A true collaboration of all four members that features several dramatic tempo changes, this is another exciting example of the free flowing, yet highly cohesive improvisational style the band has come to define.