Blues Traveler plays…the blues?
The band headlines Red Rocks and Belly Up for Independence Day weekend
Who: Blues Traveler
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Monday, July 5
Tickets: Sold out
More info: bellyupaspen.com
Since it was founded as a garage band more than three decades ago, Blues Traveler has never been off the road for as long as the pandemic has forced them to be. As they kick off their first post-pandemic tour Fourth of July weekend with shows at Red Rocks Ampitheatre and Belly Up Aspen, keyboardist Ben Wilson says these are the biggest shows of the band’s long life.
“I guarantee you are not nearly as excited as we are to be kicking off our tour there – let alone kicking off a tour, period!” Wilson said in a recent phone interview, exuberantly looking forward to doing the mega-hit “Run-Around” and other tunes for a roaring crowd again.
The band played a handful of private gigs in late spring, warming up for this summer tour, and last winter Wilson and frontman John Popper played some small and socially distanced concerts in Beaver Creek. But it’s been a long time since they’ve done anything like the 22-show tour that launches here and runs through the end of August.
The band did nothing for about the first six months of the pandemic, Wilson recalled. Itching to play together, they then put a COVID-19 testing plan in place and decided to meet in Nashville to make a record in late 2020.
They used the opportunity to do something they’ve wanted to do since they first got together in 1987: make a blues album.
The result is “Traveler’s Blues,” due out July 30.
“We’re not a blues band, but we’ve always loved blues, and it’s obviously in our name,” said Wilson. “So it seemed to make sense at some point to actually maybe try to play some blues songs.”
They wanted to do it right and to respectfully put their spin on this beloved American form. They’re blues lovers and have long based their sound on the classic rock tradition — which itself stole much from the blues — but the project was still an education.
They band dug deep into the blues canon, looking for original old blues classics while also seeking to mine the blues out of more recent pop songs.
The first track that truly clicked during these sessions, Wilson recalled, was their cover of Son Seals’ “Funky Bitch.”
“It’s a laid back song that turns into this classic Blues Traveler in-your-face thing that also highlights a lot of John’s good singing and the instrumental abilities of the band,” Wilson said.
On “Funky Bitch” and across the album’s 11 tracks, they’re playing with a palpable sense of joy and gratitude and fun.
The band and producer Matt Rollings packed the record with guests and landed standout performances from artists just as eager as Blues Traveler was to collaborate and to play music in-person after so much time apart. It’s a mix of the band’s heroes, like jazz guitarist John Scofield, and old friends like Warren Haynes.
“The next thing we knew, we had this cool, somewhat-unlikely group of folks contributing,” Wilson said of the guests.
Vocalist Rita Wilson and Scofield join for a blues-based cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Haynes trades raspy vocals with Popper on “Sitting on Top of the World” and Keb’ Mo’ steals the show on Nina Simone’s “Trouble in Mind.” For a cover of The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues,” Popper and Mickey Raphael trade on its classic harmonica riffs.
Playing together again and making these songs was long overdue, said Wilson, after a half-year of separation.
“It begins to wear on you after awhile,” he said. “Just figuring out which way is up becomes a struggle. … We survived and that can’t be said for a lot of folks who had to deal with the uglier sides of COVID. So we were just grateful to be able to get back to work.”
Wilson said rehearsals have helped the band get back to picking up the unspoken cues and the concert telepathy that they’d developed over the years. As for seeing the crowd and hearing its cheers and feeling its energy, Blues Traveler does not need to practice for that long overdue experience.
“It’s going to feel so good to get out there in front of people,” Wilson said. “And I know that people are going to be feeling the same way because we’ve all been so cooped up for so long.”