Blues Traveler @ Highline Ballroom

Blues TravelerNEW YORK, NY—Blues Traveler may be best known for their radio staples “Runaround” and “Hook,” but they showed there’s much more to the band than those two songs. They returned to New York City for the first time in a number of years, hitting New York’s hottest new music venue, the Highline Ballroom, and the state-of-the-art sound system was perfectly suited for the intricate jams and high level of musicianship the band brings to the stage.

While keeping their jam band signature sound, Blues Traveler can be a lot heavier than most bands of the genre and a lot more progressive as well. Parts of the set are as reminiscent of Rush as they are of Phish, and their song segues can be as smooth and precise as any group you’ll see, be it a jam band or heavy rock group.

Originally formed in Princeton, New Jersey, the band members are now spread throughout the country. Legendary frontman and harmonica virtuoso, John Popper, is so fast and melodic that his solos defy description, with a unique sound that recordings don’t do justice to. He also radiates a certain charisma onstage, the same energy he brings to his frequent appearances on the Howard Stern show when he‘s in the area. Guitarist Chan Kinchla is an underappreciated player in the jam band world, and keyboardist Ben Wilson is as creative a player as any keyboardist you’ll find. But the backbone of the band, bassist Tadd Kinchla and drummer Brendan Hill, are such a tight unit that their playing seems locked in by a sequencer. Tadd is adept at five and six- string bass, with some upright thrown in for good measure.

The band started with the song “Sweet Talkin’ Hippie” from their debut album, which led into “Stand” from their 1994 Four release, and then the aforementioned “Runaround,” which brought a roar from packed house. They played a few tracks from their new CD, including “You, Me And Everything,” a great song that should satisfy longtime fans as well as bring some new ones into the fold. And in keeping with the unpredictability of a Blues Traveler show, they hit on Cheap Trick’s “Want You To Want Me,” and included some rarely heard songs from their back catalog, “What’s For Breakfast” and “Dropping Some NYC.”

A highlight of the evening was the encore, for which they brought out Chris Barron, lead singer of the Spin Doctors, and local diva Lisa Bouchelle, for an electrifying version of Steve Miller‘s “The Joker.” John traded vocal licks with Chris and Lisa, with brief forays into snippets of songs such as “Underneath It All,” “The Tide Is High,” “Stir It Up,” and “Crimson And Clover.” The vocal interplay between John and Lisa showed a chemistry they developed during a recent national tour that featured her as the opening act.

Bouchelle opened the show with an acoustic set that showed why she is considered a rising star in the music world. She and duo partner Jason Cowden showcased songs from her recently released independent, Universal distributed CD. Two new songs were crowd favorites, including the high energy jam “Confused” that featured some great guitar work from Jason, and “Reinvent,” a song that is a tour-de-force anthem for teen and 20- something girls, and shows why Lisa may be the first artist since Alanis Morrisette in the ‘90s to capture the allegiance of young females.

Another crowd favorite was the all-too-catchy “Along For The Ride,” which could easily be all over the radio next summer, as a version of the song was recorded in L.A. recently that has “summer hit” written all over it. This is an artist to keep an eye out for, as she seems destined for major things in the near future.

This show was a spectacular return to New York for Blues Traveler, and the fans that packed the venue shouldn’t be forced to wait years for their next show in the city. Blues Traveler should be a “must-see” for real music fans, and a show that will pleasantly surprise even casual fans of the band.