By Mike O’Cull
Grammy-winning jam band Blues Traveler dedicates itself to the formidable task of reworking and reinterpreting a host of timeless blues classics on the group’s new album Traveler’s Blues. The record comes out July 30th, 2021 on Round Hill Records and finds the current BT lineup and special guests like Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Rita Wilson, John Scofield, Warren Haynes, and Keb’ Mo’ getting all over timeless songs by Son Seals, Jimmy Reed, The Mississippi Sheiks, The Doors, and Gnarls Barkley. Grammy winner Matt Rollings (Willie Nelson) produced the sessions and did a great job of capturing the live-band energy and raw feel the songs require. All involved helped breathe new life and new ideas into these famous tunes and the set comes off fresh and fun.
Blues Traveler began life as a high school blues band in the late 80s and exploded into the 90s with three consecutive gold records: Blues Traveler (1990), Travelers and Thieves(1991), and Save His Soul (1993). The group’s hippie-centric guitar and harmonica version of rock and roll became wildly popular and the fourth BT album, simply titled Four (1994), went platinum six times and won the band a Grammy Award for the single “Run-Around.” Traveler’s Blues is BT’s fourteenth full-length release and feels like the full-circle record the group was always destined to make. The present Blues Traveler roster of John Popper (vocals, harmonica), Chan Kinchla (guitar), Tad Kinchla (bass), Ben Wilson (keyboards), and Brendan Hill (drums) is a solid and stylish crew unafraid to put its own stamp on every song they play.
Popper and company start this set with a strong cover of the Son Seals burner “Funky Bitch.” Popper has long been the king of shred harmonica and uses this track to show us that he hasn’t lost one single step on harp or as a singer. The cut is funky, dynamic, and overflowing with the kind of energy needed to wow the biggest crowds in the world. The whole band hits this one hard and the sound of BT back in action will set you soaring.
Next, the group takes on Jimmy Reed’s “You Got Me Runnin’” with the help of American Idol veteran Crystal Bowersox. Their version rides an easy shuffle groove just like Reed at his best. Bowersox has a natural affinity for this music and sounds wonderful paired up with Popper. Together, they put down a thoroughly-enjoyable take on one of the blues’ most famous songs. “Ball & Chain” is a slow blues treat that features a guest spot from the always mind-blowing Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. Popper absolutely roars on the vocal mic but never lets his power get out of hand and Kingfish delivers his mighty guitar talents with the poise of a future legend. Hearing them both on the same track is a soul-cleansing experience that you need to have.
Warren Haynes shows up on The Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ On Top of the World” and adds some sweet slide guitar licks and growling vocals to the proceedings. Haynes is always compelling and continues that tradition on this cut, taking us all to school. He makes a great counterpoint to Popper and a full album of them together would make a lot of fans happy. The Gnarls Barkley hit “Crazy” is a surprising choice among all of these vintage songs but rocks out with assistance from vocalist Rita Wilson and jazz/fusion guitar star John Scofield. Overlook it at your own risk.
“Trouble In Mind” brings Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’ into the mix for a strutting and soulful closing number. Keb’ is never anything less than cool and killer and he’s an instant hit playing with this bunch. His warm vocal tone contributes a lot to the joy of the track and is more than worth your time. Blues Traveler is very much alive on this new effort and continues to evolve and grow as a unit. The road has been long but the future looks bright for one of the 90s most iconic acts.
Listen to “Ball and Chain” feat Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
Pre-order link for Traveler’s Blues