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Blues Traveler/Jonny Lang Live at the Oakdale Theatre, Wallingford, CT on 10/27/97

Blues Traveler, currently enjoying the success of their most recent release, returned to Connecticut for a show at the new Oakdale Theatre. The band took the stage and began their 75 minute first set with the song that introduced many of us to them, “But Anyway,” from their first album. They were obviously in good spirits as they jumped from one song to the next, only stopping to allow applause after every 3 or 4 songs. They even managed to work a brief segment of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” into one of these fast-paced mini-sets! Guitarist Chan Kinchla was smiling ear to ear as he pranced around the stage to the beat of whatever tune was currently being performed. John Popper, the busiest member of the band, handling both lead vocals and the band’s driving harmonica sound, stayed within a few feet of his microphone stand most of the night, out of pure necessity. Drummer Brendan Hill and bassist Bob Sheehan are the backbone of the band’s sound and maintain a low-key presence on stage, while directing their full energies into the band’s sound.

The acoustical qualities of the new theater are excellent, allowing everyone the full experience of the performance. The band is also playing better, as compared to last year’s “Live From The Fall” release, which showed some rough edges remaining in their live sound. Tonight’s sound was right on the money and benefited from the new theatre’s careful design.

A Blues Traveler concert is not so much about each individual song as it is about the mood that envelopes the room as they play. The whole free-flowing musical jam mindset is what this band is really about. It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain to anyone who’s never experienced it. To far too many bands today, a concert is simply a live performance of their songs. To a jam band, such as The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, The Dave Matthews Band, Phish, The Radiators, and Blues Traveler, a concert is a far greater experience in which their songs serve only as a foundation.

Every Blues Traveler show is different, as the band members alternate the responsibility of writing the setlists. I was told that this night belonged to drummer Brendan Hill, and that the second set was entirely rewritten during the intermission, to better suit the mood of the room during the first set. A spectacular cover of the Charlie Daniels Band hit “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”, which was originally planned for an encore, was moved to the beginning of the second set because the crowd seemed to need a little “kick” so to speak. The fiddle parts were accordingly replaced by harmonica and the band really seemed to make this piece their own. The second set was about the same length as the first and included the band’s biggest hits, many of which became sing-alongs for a crowd that knew the lyrics by heart.

The band returned for an encore that added another 20 minutes or so to the performance. John Popper, who wears a military-style vest to keep some twelve harmonicas always within easy reach, began tossing them into the crowd after each harmonica segment and grabbing a new one. At the end of the encore he happily passed out his remaining harmonicas as the rest of the band shook hands with the crowd. A closing bow from the band, and a thanks to Jonny Lang for his opening set, ended another Blues Traveler experience.

Jonny Lang, and his excellent backing band, jump-started the show with an extremely well received 45 minute set. Lang, the teenage blues guitar prodigy, may still be developing his own stage presence, and honing his performance skills, but nonetheless succeeded in entertaining the crowd, many of whom had already seen him open the recent Aerosmith show in Hartford. His set began with “Hit The Ground Running,” a song that could easily be used to describe his career thus far. Stevie Ray Vaughan he’s not, but then again he’s only seventeen. Lang’s growth, as a guitarist, a songwriter, and a live performer is something that you should keep your eyes on. He’s got a lot of potential for further development. The scary part is that he’s already pretty good.