By all rights, Blues Traveler should have a chip on its collective shoulder. First, the New York-bred band saw the Dave Matthews Band leapfrog its way to the chart-tops by borrowing Blues Traveler’s pop-savvy hippie-rock. Then, as momentum was gathering again, the band lost bassist Bobby Sheehan to a drug overdose. But, for this evening at least, Blues Traveler was not about to wallow in wouldas and shouldas.
A release-day show can be a chance for a band to indulge itself, or to indulge its fans — or both, as borne out by this agreeably meandering homecoming gig, which saw its ambiance gradually morph from mere showcase to unfettered block party.
Initially, the quintet concentrated on previewing material from its new Interscope album, “Bridge” — and doing so in uncharacteristically digression-free style. That close-to-the-vest approach was a perfect fit for airy tunes like “Just for Me” (essentially a spry rewrite of the 1996 hit “Runaround”) and the wistful “Girl Inside My Head.”
Faux-funk interludes like “Back in the Day” and “You Reach Me” were palpably less engaging, however. The songs themselves were little more than frameworks for frontman John Popper and guitarist Chan Kinchla to trade off riffs — and neither seemed willing to really go out on a limb to pluck a particularly sweet specimen.
The necessary sense of adventure began to manifest itself halfway through the perf, with arty-yet-visceral digressions into Gaelic blues (during a ripping take on “All Hands”) and neo-harmolodics (via the extended jam that bisected a version of “Runaround”). The quintet pushed the envelope with impressive ease, feinting with mellow reggae rhythms, then tightening up to allow for some unusually fierce harmonica solos on the part of Popper
In the past, Popper — who has shed 200 pounds since undergoing stomach-stapling surgery some months back — would lose steam as a set wore on, often dragging the band down with him. But here, the slimmed-down frontman never missed a beat, bounding around the stage, even doing his best Hendrix impression by using his teeth to wring a solo from his guitar on “Rage.”
Staying true to its bar band roots, the quintet punctuated rowdy versions of “Manhattan Bridge” and “NY Prophesie” with snippets of several covers, the most interesting of which were a spot-on rendition of Beck’s “Loser” and a simmering “Blister in the Sun” (borrowed from the Violent Femmes).