Fran Healy, lead singer for the Scottish band Travis, had a favorite stage move at the Wiltern on Friday night: He clambered onto the drum riser, stepped atop Neil Primrose’s bass drum and leapt onto the stage. He did it three or four times over the band’s 90-minute perf but never nailed the landing.
That’s a good metaphor for his band’s current circumstance. “Ode to J. Smith,” its sixth album (and first released on its own Universal Fontana imprint Red Telephone Box), attempts to toughen and expand the band’s musical range, allowing lead guitarist Andy Dunlop room to roam, but live… they couldn’t nail the landing. While “Chinese Blues,” the set’s first song, starts out with a list of life-threatening moments — heart attacks, muggings, car accidents — it climaxes by asking “won’t someone give them a hand,” and the show quickly settled into Travis’ comfort zone: modest, lightly jangly folk rock that either demands comfort or offers a shoulder to lean on.
There are a few moments that stood out — a Spectorish tympani gives “Selfish Jean” some oomph and Dunlop breaks off a few manic solos, and Healy’s voice is an appealing combination of Bono’s yearning and Chris Martin’s morose pleas — but they brought little relief to the music’s narrow focus. The sound mix, which kept the drums safely in the background and sheared off the high end from the guitars, only added to the sense of monotony. Not even Healy’s wading into the crowd to sing and slow dance with a fan during “Falling Down” could goose the energy level.
It would be generous to pin the blame for Travis’ lackluster perf on the show’s last-minute move from the smaller Music Box to the Wiltern. But what else can you expect when “All I Want to Do Is Rock,” a song Healy introduced as “Travis’ national anthem,” is a mid-tempo balled with a gently descending chorus? It’s a song that feels more like a lullaby than a rocker.
Travis plays Gotham’s Webster Hall on April 25.