By: Derek Jung
First and foremost, let’s get something out of the way: John Popper can play the harmonica very well.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the band. Blues Traveler’s heyday was in the early-to-mid
90’s. Their seminal album four was released in 1994 and nothing since has reached the kind of acclaim
that the first few albums received. Given that fact, I would consider them a borderline nostalgia act.
There’s nothing wrong with being a nostalgia act, in fact, many similar bands still draw huge crowds.
Being a nostalgia act comes with a certain self-awareness of where you currently stand in your musical
career; you know that your best days are probably behind you, and even if you still want to make new
music, you realize that most people will want to hear your older material. Blues Traveler hasn’t reached
that point yet. The band released a new album this year titled Blow Up The Moon. I’m sure the album is
fine, but I can also guarantee that the vast majority of the audience came specifically to hear the hits
from four. It wasn’t until nearly the end of their set that they finally brought out “Run-Around”, and you
could tell from the crowd that it was too little, too late to save the set.
Popper’s lost a lot of weight since the 90’s, a product of a series of health issues in the last 15 years, but
his voice still sounds great and he can still wail on the harmonica. He had a set-up of 5 red solo cups on a
little table to prevent his mouth from getting dry, and the stagehand would replace them as he drank.
By the end of the show, I think he drank enough solo cups to field a regulation beer pong table.
Every song featured the harmonica in some shape or form, and he is definitely the virtuoso that I
imagined from listening to the albums growing up. The problem with having so many harmonica solos is
that they all start sounding the same after a while. I appreciated the skill and difficulty of his playing, but
it quickly became an overused gimmick. In fact, most of their jamming got old, and I’m normally all
about jam sessions mid-concert. There were harmonica solos, guitar solos, bass solos, and more guitar
solos; this jamming was not only excessive but it often sounded jumbled and disorganized, like it was
one person’s turn to show off for a little while without much interaction with the other bandmates. I
love good jams where the individual members react to the ebb and flow of each other’s playing, but this
was not it.
To avoid being a total buzzkill for two live reviews in a row, there were some memorable moments
during the show. They played a fun cover of The Charlie Daniels Band classic “The Devil Went Down To
Georgia” where Chan Kinchla, the guitarist, dueled Popper on harmonica. They also did a reggae
restyling of Radiohead’s “Creep” which was pretty cool and definitely took me by surprise. Because they
were sandwiched between songs that I didn’t recognize, they were a breath of fresh air to the set. Later
on, they brought out New Hollow to play the song they helped collaborate on from Blow Up The Moon
called “Jackie’s Baby”, but not before wishing Evan West from New Hollow happy 21st birthday. Yes, you
read that right. Blues Traveler collaborated with a bunch of early twenty-somethings. Stoner uncle
Throw in a keytar jam (I’m serious), and you have the basic gist of what the show was like. I’m not going
to lie, my wife and I left a little early when it became apparent that they were going to continue avoiding
four and keep on with the never-ending, insufferable jamming. It wasn’t worth it to hear “Hook” or “The
Mountains Win Again”.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the opening band, Cincinnati’s own Motherfolk. They may sing “whoa”
and “oh” too much, but I really like their sound, and I’m disappointed because I think I was in the
minority last night.
By: Derek Jung
The Midpoint Indie Summer Series continued Friday night on Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati with Brooklyn based San Fermin. The band, touring for the release of their sophomore album Jackrabbit, took the stage in front of what I perceived to be a smaller than normal crowd at the square. This, I surmised, was because Matt and Kim were headlining the University of Cincinnati's free Red & Black concert the same night, but I could be wrong. Regardless, San Fermin brought out many of the heavy hitters from Jackrabbit and their self-titled debut.
For those who aren't familiar with San Fermin, the band has co-lead singers, one male, Allen Tate, and one female, Charlene Kaye. Typically, one of them sings lead while the other provides back-up vocals, but at times they do go back and forth in the same song. Allen Tate's baritone vocals have been widely compared to Matt Berninger from The National, but I also hear some throaty inflections and cadence that sound similar to Samuel Herring from Future Islands too.
I'll admit to being biased towards two things about San Fermin. First, I preferred Kaye's predecessor in the band, Rae Cassidy, who Kaye replaced in April 2014. While I think Kaye holds her own in the role, I think Cassidy more successfully captured the essence of the songs from the debut album, specifically Sonsick. Second, I like the female led songs, whether by Cassidy or Kaye, much more than those led by Tate, and this continued with Friday night's performance.
The band came on almost exactly at 10pm, and wasted no time diving headfirst into Jackrabbit with "The Woods". It became immediately apparent that the sound mix was going to be terrible. We're talking one of the worst mixes that I've ever heard. The drums were muted, and I questioned whether the snare was mic'd at all. Instruments came in and out throughout the set and it oftentimes sounded like the sound guy was raising and lowering volume levels depending on who he thought was supposed to be in the limelight at the time. At one point, Stephen Chen, the saxophonist, was in a huge groove towards the front of the stage and the crowd was into it. Moments later, the sound inexplicably dropped off and we hardly heard the last thirty or so seconds of him playing, although he was still dancing around stage with the same fervor as before. The violinist Rebekah Durham had the same thing happen to her too. For the record, I highly doubt this was just a case of technical difficulties, and I respect the hell out of what a good sound crew can do for a band, but Friday night's performance on the board was an atrocity.
The band can also be pretty awkward on stage. Since Kaye and Tate switch who takes lead, the other really doesn't have much to do. Kaye would turn her back on the crowd and just idly dance to herself or shake a shaker and Tate would move to the back of the stage and play an electric guitar while facing either the drummer or away from the crowd. It got weird sometimes.
I thought Stephen Chen and John Brandon, on saxophone and trumpet respectively, had their instruments been audible like they should have been, would have been the perfect addition to capture the orchestral feeling live that is so present in the albums. There were definitely moments where this was achieved, but unfortunately every element was so overshadowed by the shoddy sound overall, that the two instruments were often nonexistent. The product sounded so empty in the open aired space, and I think the reaction of the crowd, save for those right up on the stage, mirrored what we were hearing. Had this been in a club with a better mix, I think I can safely say that this review would have been much different. Instead, the sound guy got the spotlight, and that's something you never want to happen.
I can't write this review without giving a shout-out to locals Lemon Sky who I saw open. They're more hard rock than I expected to open for San Fermin, but I think they sounded great. The Ridges, Sweet & the Sweet Sweets, and Orchids also opened, but I didn't make it down in time to catch their sets.
Check out a fan-recorded video of the opening song "The Woods" in potato quality...and the back of some guy's head. The full set list is also below.
Woman in Red
Who are we?
Derek Jung and Joseph Kathmann -- Just two ordinary (debatable) guys that love talking about music. You can read more about us here: