In the summer of 1997, a friend and I escaped the stifling Florida humidity with a road trip to the dry air of Colorado. We snaked up through the South—Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky—before entering the Midwest and beating the boredom of the endless stretch of I-70 through Missouri and Kansas with Stephen King audiobooks. After 28 hours, we stepped out of an overly ripe Civic hatchback, exhausted but exhilarated to be in the parking lot of the greatest live music venue in the country.
With some fast-fingered luck on Ticketmaster’s phone line (remember those days?), we had secured tickets to see Blues Traveler on the Fourth of July at Red Rocks. At the time, this wasn’t an easy score. Just six months prior, the band had sold out Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve and was undoubtedly at the peak of its popularity, getting ready to open stadiums for the Rolling Stones that coming fall. As the founders of the H.O.R.D.E. tour, John Popper’s crew was big with the jam band tribe, but the group was also enjoying the mainstream success of a breakout record “Four,” which contains the Grammy-winning hit single “Run-Around” and to date has sold more than six million copies in the U.S.
I’ve never been a die-hard fan, but that night the band blew me away. The venue certainly enhanced the experience: Seeing a show surrounded by the natural beauty at Red Rocks seemed otherworldly compared to the concrete cookie-cutter concert sheds I was used to. But I’ll also give credit to Blues Traveler. The grouped weaved nimbly between rock grooves, funk jams and melodic pop tunes, while Popper delivered head-spinning solos on his harmonica.
This year the band turns 30, celebrating with a lengthy tour that runs through the fall. The mainstream no longer pays attention, and from town to town the group’s crowds are smaller than they once were, but Blues Traveler still holds court on the Rocks every Fourth. If you’ve never been, here are five reasons you should experience this longstanding tradition in Colorado live music.
#1 NO ONE PLAYS HARMONICA LIKE
Blues Traveler’s frontman plays the instrument, best known for traditional blues vamps and filling space in folk ballads, with the hyper tenacity of a
lead guitarist in a rock band. While the style has certainly miffed some purists, Popper’s super-speedy scales and improvisational tangents have certainly challenged the boundaries of the instrument.
#2 THEY BRING GREAT GUESTS
Blues Traveler features great opening acts when playing Red Rocks on the Fourth. Leftover Salmon
wowed the place on the show I caught back in 1997—and they’re still a personal favorite. This year, the
band is going for full-on 1990s roots-rock nostalgia with support from fellow H.O.R.D.E. alums Rusted
Root, the Spin Doctors and the Samples, a Boulder-bred grassroots favorite that emerged in the late 1980s and resurfaced with new material a few years ago, sparking the occasional reunion.
#3 THEY PLAY
I’ll never forget hearing Popper burn harp through the infamous fiddle solo in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” just one of the many great covers in the band’s deep repertoire. Lately they’ve been throwing Radiohead’s “Creep” into set lists, and on the Fourth you can count on Popper to deliver a soulful harmonica rendering of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
#4 THE HOOKS
BRING YOU BACK
Admittedly, Blues Traveler’s latter-day output has been less than impactful. I was baffled by the band’s latest studio album, “Blow Up theMoon,” which featured appearances by Hanson and JC Chasez of NSYNC, but the early catalog is stellar. For some of Popper’s best songwriting, check out “Sweet Pain” and “Support Your Local Emperor” from 1991’s “Travelers and Thieves.” That record closes with the epic “Mountain Cry,” a nine-minute, tempo-shifting blues meditation featuring keys and vocal help from Gregg Allman (RIP). You can’t help singing along to “Run-Around” and “Hook,” either, both tunes that exemplify Popper’s ability to craft a catchy chorus.
#5 FIREWORKS ON THE ROCKS
Red Rocks offers amazing views of the Front Range fireworks. From the upper seats, you can look beyond the stage and catch bursts of color above Boulder and the city lights of Denver—perfect visuals when the band is on that famed stage and locked in a deep groove.