From the roar of the crowd at the Smith Center Wednesday night, it was clear the mostly GW audience hadn’t seen a show as big as Blues Traveler since the last time the band played here in 1995.
After a solid performance by opening act The Tragically Hip, a Canadian version of REM, John Popper and company pumped up the crowd of about 2,000 with their own unique sound and stage antics.
Opening its set with the hit song “Alone,” Blues Traveler front man and harmonica maven Popper ripped into the trademark licks that define the band’s unique style of blues-rock, backed up by bassist Bobby Sheehan, drummer Brendan Hill and guitarist Chandler Kinchala.
By the time the band started into its second song, Popper had donned his trademark harmonica vest, the temperature in the Smith Center was hotter than hell and the rock-starved crowd of students was on its feet.
At one point, a fan known only as “Scott” joined the band on the small stage for an impromptu version of “Butanaway,” playing backup harmonica to Popper.
“Every time I think I have something original, some young punk comes along,” Popper crowed after the duet.
What began as an after-school project known as The Blues Band practicing in Popper’s garage in Princeton, N.J., quickly became today’s rock phenomenon.
From its humble roots, Blues Traveler gained its long-awaited recognition on the American pop charts in 1994 when its breakthrough fourth album Four went multiplatinum with the help of chart-topping singles “Runaround” and “Hook.”
The band’s latest album Straight on `Till Morning, received mixed reviews from critics, but nearly all agree the band’s true forte is live performance.
Touring an average of 250 days a year, the band’s affinity for longimprovisations and impromptu jams made it a hit on the road, especially at smaller college venues such as GW.
Cementing Blues Traveler’s place among mainstream audiences, Popper founded the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) festival in 1992 along with the heads of several other alternative rock bands.
With Blues Traveler headlining all but one tour in 1997, the festival, which brought together hundreds of acts from across the nation, became a favorite summer staple for concertgoers.
GW was the fourth stop on the band’s 11-show tour, which includes several other campus venues.
Move-in for the show, coordinated by the GW Program Board, began at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, as 15-wheeler semi-trucks hauling the band’s cumbersome light and sound equipment were unloaded by PB members.
Eric Hall, PB concert co-chair, and a staff of 35 students assisted Blues Traveler roadies in assembling the equipment and transforming the gym floor into a working stage, complete with spotlights and an extensive sound system.
“Basically we just did a lot of moving things around . boxes, barricades, spotlights, a lot of grunt work,” said PB crew member Lee Lubarsky. “I thought it would be more glamorous, but it was still fun.”
Overall, Hall said the marathon of manual labor went smoothly.
“We’ve never done something so big,” he said. “It was cool to see it all come together.”
The PB crew attended the show for free, but the students were responsible for manning the backstage area and performing various behind-the-scenes tasks.
Hall’s team met weekly for the past month and a half to ensure perfect execution of both the move-in and the post-show set deconstruction that lasted into the early hours of the morning.
“It was a lot of work for a great show,” said PB Concert Chair P.J. Rosenberg.
Freshman Ryan Cordell has seen Blues Traveler three times before, but that didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for Wednesday night’s show.
“There should be more shows on campus like this,” Cordell said.
When asked to confirm rumors that the Dave Matthews Band will be visiting the Smith Center for Homecoming, Student Association President Carrie Potter only smiled.
“It’s going to be a really big act, but I can’t say exactly who,” Potter said.