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“Were you even born when this song came out?” asked the woman in the seat next to me, laughing, as Blues Traveler launched into “Run-Around.” She was one of countless fans with their hands in the air, dancing along to the Grammy-winning, record-setting hit last night at the Bank of America Pavilion.
I was three years old when “Run-Around” came out, but it’s one of those songs that have seeped into the collective pop-culture consciousness. It’s a song that makes you smile and turn up the volume on the radio or, if you’re my neighbor at the show, take a big gulp of beer and sing along with every word.
It’s been almost twenty years since “Run-Around,” and twenty-five years since Blues Traveler began touring. As frontman John Popper told the crowd, that’s “friggin’ incredible.” When I sat down with Popper and guitarist Chan Kinsla after their set, they made it very clear that they don’t take their longevity as a band for granted. Kinsla said, “Any time you can put a fraction of a century by your name, cause we’ve been together for a quarter of a century, it’s awe-inspiring, but at the same time, really unnerving.”
A quarter of a century of practice makes for a remarkably tight live show. They opened with a crowd-pleasing cover of Sublime’s “What I Got,” which set the tone for the rest of the night: fun, light-hearted, and rowdy. It also allowed Popper to show off his harmonica skills; he plays the instrument with the power of a saxophone, for long, wailing solos traded with Kinsla.
While Blues Traveler are known to casual fans for the bouncy pop of “Run-Around,” their live shows highlight their skills as a jam band. Both Popper and Kinsla claim Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead as influences, and the bluesy, improvisational style of their set made that influence very obvious. But they didn’t make the crowd wait long for “Run-Around.” It came fourth on the set list and, unlike many of the other songs, stayed very true to the original recording. Popper still belts out every word in his powerful voice, with a rough blues edge.
According to Popper, they felt a lot of pressure after the release of their hit, but as Kinsla said, “It’s hard to get more than one ‘Run-Around.’” In terms of their live shows, they both agree that they’ll never get sick of playing the hits. “I love playing the old stuff, because it’s so fun to have people like a song that much and see what it means to them,” said Popper. “I used to want to tell people what the songs are about, but then I realized they’ve already decided what the song is about, and that’s way more important. It’s their song, and we get to be a part of that, and that’s fun. It’s a really good problem to have, that you have to play it every night.”
They do switch up their performance every night, with each band member taking turns picking the setlist from their eleven studio albums. Last night’s set featured some notable new songs from their recent album Suzie Cracks The Whip. A highlight was “Love Is Everything,” a lush, country-tinged song with lyrics about heartbreak.
The new album does show more polished production and more of a pop sensibility than the preceding few. The band brought in co-writers (including Ron Sexsmith) for many tracks, which they say opened them up to a new creative process. “After ten albums, we have a way we do things so it’s great to have those outside songwriters to shake us out of our ruts,” Kinsla said.
Popper agreed, “I felt at a real impasse after our last record. How do I take this guitarist I’ve worked with since he was seventeen, and this drummer I’d worked with since he was thirteen, and do something new by being ourselves?” He stressed the importance of not pushing too far out of the band’s comfort zone and staying true to their sound: “We needed to be pushed and still have it be authentic… You have to mean it.”
They said the co-writers, as well as producer Sam Hollander, helped them remain true to their sound. As Popper put it, “It’s fun to have a writer go, ‘I’ve listened to you guys for so long, you know what’s cool about you guys…’ Cause we don’t know! You don’t know what’s good about you.”
Live highlights like “But Anyway” showed the depth of their technical skills with an extended exchange of solos between the two. When Kinsla and Popper talk, it’s obvious they’ve known each other forever (they finish each others’ sentences) but that’s even more obvious when they play together. They knew exactly how to complement the others’ riffs, melding the sounds of the harmonica and guitar together seamlessly. They both made even their fastest, most intricate solos look effortless; chalk it up to their twenty-five years of experience.
They closed with “Hook,” a song about song-writing: “I’ll do as I’ll decide / and let it ride until I’ve died / and only then shall I abide this tide / of catchy little tunes / of hip three minute ditties.” It’s one of their hits, and it brought the crowd to thunderous cheers, but it’s also clearly a mission statement for the band. For a group that could’ve easily turned into a one-hit wonder, they’ve made a lasting career of earnest rock and roll.
“I saw them in college, and now I get to see them again,” said the woman next to me as the applause died down. She was grinning from ear to ear. With fans like that, Blues Traveler have obviously done something right, but as we closed our interview, Popper said simply and happily: “I’m always surprised people know who we are.”