Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Bryan Lasky
“Cheers to you, Albany!” vocalist-harmonicat John Popper declared several times throughout the show, and the fans that crowded onto the Empire State Plaza eagerly joined in the toast. It was a beautiful summer evening. Blues Traveler was in town. And the show was free. What’s not to like?
From the opening rumble ‘n’ crunch of “Things Are Looking Up” (from the band’s latest album, Suzie Cracks the Whip), Popper and the band kept the crowd bouncing and grooving, slowing things down only for the piano ballad “Cara Let the Moon.”
Just before “Run-Around,” guest conga player William Rodriguez joined in, heating up the already cooking rhythm section of bassist Tad Kinchla, keyboardist Ben Wilson and drummer Brendan Hill. The band’s longtime cohesiveness was in evidence throughout the night, as they frequently slid seamlessly from one song to another – Chan Kinchla’s extended guitar solo gracefully gliding into “Carolina Blues” and Hill’s thunder-laden drum solo kicking “Hook” into high gear.
But when you boil it all down, what sets Blues Traveler apart from all of the other jam bands is Popper. Certainly not your typical blues harmonicat, Popper’s solos were brimming over with an off-the-scale ratio of notes-per-measure, like the Eddie Van Halen of the blues harp. But Popper was notable not just for his hot-wired harmonica playing, but also for his singing. Whether it was his surprisingly gentle, Don McLean-like vocals on “Cara Let the Moon” or his spit ‘n’ howl through the sprawling rendition of “But Anyway,” Popper was always the focus.
Blues Traveler also had the advantage of playing to a fully primed and pumped-up audience, following the groove-a-licious set by the Daley Brothers. Each member of the Troy trio of siblings brings some serious credentials to the spotlight – bassist Jack with Lenny Kravitz; guitarist Frank with Bo Diddley; and drummer Joe with the Local 518 powerhouse Super 400 – but they get to play together only on semi-rare occasions.
Make no mistake, though, this was no mere power trio. Beefed up with nine-man line-up that included keyboards, congas and horns, the band laid down deep-dish soul grooves, while Memphis-based frontman Gedeon Luke wailed through a set of sizzling soul-stirrers from Sly & the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay” to Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” to a high-flying rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”
All that was just the tail end of the New York State Food Festival, and the musical action on the Empire State Plaza actually got started early in the day with the salsa sounds of Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra, the rompin’ rockabilly of the El Dorados and the super soul-rock of Wild Adriatic.