Concert Review: Lollapalooza, Day 3 with Blues Traveler

(Editor's Note: This is the third day of armchair concert reviews of performances at Lollapalooza in Chicago via internet through the AT&T Blue Room. To read the reviews of Lollapalooza from the beginning, please go here.)

by Rick Rockwell

Blues Traveler has long been a Chicago favorite, and a favorite of Lollapalooza audiences. It’s no wonder the band turned out a live recording of its 2006 appearance at Lollapalooza.

It seems Blues Traveler can do no wrong in the Windy City, a town that loves the blues, even if the band doesn’t deserve all that audience love. This year, Blues Traveler turned in an inconsistent performance, and still the crowd loved every moment.

Blues Traveler’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: virtuoso blues harp player/singer John Popper. Popper knows how to deliver amazing harmonica solos. But sometimes there is too much of a good thing. Popper’s soloing, which tends to follow only a few variations, tends to be the focal point of the band, diminishing the contributions of other strong instrumentalists, especially lead guitarist Chan Kinchla. Blues Traveler’s jam band approach to its music depends on soloists who can complement one another, and too often Popper weaves a tapestry of notes, drowning out his mates, when all he needs are short intense moments to shine.

But the audience rarely notices this because the band knows pacing. Starting with an FM hit (“But Anyway”) helps. Then, immediately, Blues Traveler turned to new music from the forthcoming North Hollywood Shootout (“That’s How You Remember It”). Just as the audience’s attention started to wane, mid-set the band nailed a perfect version of another FM hit (“Run-Around”) followed by a blistering solo moment by Kinchla on “Carolina Blues” (which borrows more than a few bars from Jimi Hendrix and “Voodoo Chile”). Just as Blues Traveler appeared to be hitting stride at mid-set with this mix, again the band explored new material, and a long jam (which was oddly dissonant at times), breaking any real momentum they had established. But they made it up to the audience with an energetic close on “Hook” their third FM hit. This may be a formula for pleasing a crowd for 55 minutes, but it may also explain why Blues Traveler is a band running in place for the past decade instead of progressing forward. Despite its attempts at showcasing new material, its over-long jams, and the new songs just don’t match the caliber of what the band produced in the 1990s.

But as usual, for every disappointment at this year’s online streaming version of Lollapalooza there were a variety of strong performances or surprises to make the experience worthwhile.

Although, like on Day 1, the headliners were not available online (no Nine Inch Nails or Kanye West) so the final online performance came courtesy of The National.

Playing minor key numbers that explored the dark edges of what some have termed “chamber pop” (think The Decemberists or Arcade Fire) the group gave an emotional performance. The National shown the brightest on “Ada” but also turned in a sweeping version of “Fake Empire.” Before the final song, singer Matt Berninger noted “This song is NOT dedicated to John McCain. He’s a nice guy, but this is not dedicated to him.” Then the band swung into a raw and aching version of “Mr. November” to close its set.

Another highlight of Day 3 at Lollapalooza: The Whigs, representing the latest generation of garage rock to come out of Athens, Georgia. Although The Whigs seemed to run out of steam by the end of their set in the summer heat, ending with a lackluster rendition of “Half a World Away,” the band delivered a varied set of punchy rockers. You have to admire any up-and-coming band that plays a cover of material from a group that’s even more obscure. So there were The Whigs delivering strongly on a cover of “God’s Biographer,” originally by Danish band the Bingo Trappers. The highpoint of The Whigs’ set was when frontman Parker Gispert hung up his lead guitar for keyboards and bassist Tim Deaux tried out a slide guitar for some alt-country on “Sleep Sunshine.” But the trio’s staples were more in the vicinity of the ringing and ragged “Right Hand on My Heart,” and more in the spirit of sounds from the garage. The Whigs proved even though Lollapalooza was winding down, the new music still contained plenty of interesting dimensions.

(To see the first part of this series on Lollapalooza, please go here. For the second day of reviews, please go here.)

(The photo of Blues Traveler performing in 2004 is by jvh33 of Grand Rapids, MI via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. To see Blues Traveler performing "Run-Around" on tour in 1998, please check below.)

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