by Matt Koelling
Has it really been over a quarter-century since an up-and-coming New Jersey jam-band named Blues Traveler founded H.O.R.D.E. Festival, which boasted like-minded acts such as Phish, Spin Doctors, and Widespread Panic? While seemingly hard to believe, time is a thief. Some sights and sounds before the show around the Ocean City Music Pier would’ve felt familiar outside an amphitheater in Summer 1992. Phish tour t-shirts, tie-dye, Grateful Dead’s “Big Railroad Blues” playing inside the men’s room. Rain came down out on the boardwalk, but didn’t appear to dampen spirits.
Inside, other signs signified the passage of time. Chris Barron, lead singer of Spin Doctors, was the evening’s opening act. He is perhaps best known for two things: that band’s early-90’s hits, plus his trademark shock of red-hair and beard in accompanying videos. Nowadays, that red is a close-cropped gray. Yet performing a solo acoustic set, and later joining Blues Traveler for a scat-singing duet with front-man John Popper, Barron’s voice remained. More accurately his voice, following a scary vocal paralysis in 1999 that left him unable to speak above a whisper for years, has been fully regained.
Barron’s appreciation for surviving that storm to be back now doing what he loves was palpable, despite stormy weather outside. “Chris Barron and I have known each other since we were 16 years old, we met in English class back in Princeton, New Jersey. We literally learned how to write together”, gushed Popper, “How many people you can say that about? I truly love that guy.” Conversely, Barron professed, “I’d like to thank Blues Traveler for inviting me to move up to New York City with them when I was 19, and basically bestowing my entire career upon me”.
The crowd was mainly there to see Popper and Company, but also showed appreciation for their longtime friend, particularly on familiar Spin Doctors’ singles like “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes”. The latter garnered a clapping, full-throated, a capella call-and-response performance by the crowd on the final chorus. Barron spent the whole time between sets at the merch table, autographing the 17 remaining vinyl copies of his recent solo album, snapping photos with every fan who approached him.
As the houselights dimmed and Blues Traveler made their way to the stage, a growing roar rose from the back of the venue to the front. It got louder as the final piece of the puzzle, John Popper, emerged last, before proclaiming “Ocean City, New Jersey! This was where Brooklyn Bob Sheehan lived. So this is like coming home for us”. They then launched into a raw new rocker entitled “Wolf Is Bumpin”, as Popper informed the enthusiastic crowd this was the first time it would be played live in their home state.
New material from a legacy act can be a dodgy proposition, but the veteran band may have a heater on their hands with “Wolf”. The song being battle-tested enough for deployment as an opener is testament to that. Three others from a forthcoming October ’18 album entitled Hurry Up & Hang Around didn’t generate quite the same level of fieriness, but were wisely sprinkled between old favorites like “Runaround” and “But Anyway” to prevent the show from losing pace.
The “Brooklyn Bob Sheehan” Popper referenced was Blues Traveler’s original bassist, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 1999. A framed photo of Sheehan sat by an amp onstage, a tribute to an old friend as makeshift shrine. The surviving members (Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, drummer Brendan Hill) made a group decision to carry on back then. The three have remained together ever since. They didn’t look far to find Sheehan’s successor on bass, enlisting Kinchla’s younger brother Tad. Once Ben Wilson joined in 2000 as the full-time keyboard player, this lineup has remained intact for 18 years.
With a band history stretching thirty years, it’s almost surprising to see how much they still appear to enjoy playing and interacting with each other. Kinchla, whose infectious grin diffuses his Bunyan-esque looming lumberjack size, played the role of cheerleader all night. Anyone in the first few rows on stage right, despite his being off-mic, could hear him exhorting and encouraging the crowd all night. Kinchala punctuated an arm waved above his head, or pump of a fist, with many a “C’Mon!” or “Alright!”.
Little brother Tad attacked his bass with real virtuosity, particularly during a breakneck-speed rhythm section exercise with Hill, bridging fan favorites “Save His Soul” and “Dropping Some NYC” with a cover of the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia”. On keys, Wilson helped filled out their sound, even taking a lead vocal turn on the band’s encore cover of the ZZ Top classic “LeGrange”.
The guy fans truly come out to see, since Blues Traveler’s inception, is lead-singer/harmonica-maestro Popper. The man who sings “Mountain Wins Again” was once a mountain of a man. He’d ballooned to 400 pounds by 1999. Gastric-bypass surgery, following a near-fatal heart attack, led to losing a lot of weight in order to survive. Popper made a passing reference onstage Monday night to separating his shoulder in a recent fall, but that didn’t seem to inhibit him during the band’s two-plus-hour performance. His trademark harmonica has lost zero of its ballyhooed power or dexterity. Vocally, particularly on set-closing favorite “The Hook”, there was a few hints of struggle. Speculating, this may have led to Wilson singing lead on the encore.
In dialogue between songs, Popper did take a circuitous route or two telling old war stories, a few not fit for print here. But before he ever veered too far off course, an audible response from a member of his adoring flock got the big man back on the task at hand. This gave the evening an authentic feel, like a bunch of old Jersey friends resuming an ongoing conversation. Minor hiccups aside, a packed house of paying customers seemed to leave fully satisfied. After thirty years of recording and touring, sometimes the greatest gift a band can share with its longtime fans is that they’ve both survived.