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Two great bands, but just one great performance

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Saturday night’s show at the Grand Sierra Resort was a mixed bag for me.

I first saw Blues Traveler back in 2007 at Crystal Bay Casino, and Big Head Todd and The Monsters in 2018 here at GSR. Both were really good shows. This show had BHTM opening for Blues Traveler at The Grand Sierra Resort. It sounded promising. 

The scheduled start time for most shows at GSR is 8 p.m., but typically they start at about 8:15 or a bit later. This evening BHTM started exactly on time, and I was not ready. I had to scramble to get my camera out and get down front to shoot, shoot, shoot. Shame on me. 

Front man, founder, singer songwriter Todd Mohr exuded joy and enthusiasm from start to finish. It spread, not only to his band, but to the audience. I would describe the music as being a mix of powerful rock and roll (not metal or grunge) with jam band stylings, and a taste of Motown at times, plus a soft ballad or two.

Todd was constantly dancing around and smiling, even making a few silly faces along the way. He was very professional, and displayed some great guitar playing skills, slamming out powerful rhythms and creative guitar solos. He is also an excellent singer. 

My partner in crime for the evening noticed at one point that his guitar had gone badly out of tune, and he instantly tossed the solo to his keyboardist who ran with it while Todd was brought a fresh guitar. Not a lick was missed. 

Still later in the show, mid song, he was waving to a tech in the wings who quickly brought out another fresh telecaster and they traded off. I guess all that power and enthusiastic playing wreaks havoc on his guitars.

They finished off their set with a very powerful rendition of “I Wanna Be Sedated” by The Ramones. They were the high point of the show.

There was a lot of pent-up energy in the theater as we waited for Blues Traveler to hit the stage. When they did appear, they were warmly welcomed. Other than Tad Kinchla on bass (joined in 1999), and Ben Wilson (joined in 2000), all players have been part of the band since the beginning. Guitarist Chan Kinchla and his brother Tad were the most visibly animated of the band members, actively engaging the audience to build up the energy. Unfortunately I didn’t pick that up from John Popper at all.

John is the star of this band. His harmonica playing is legendary and his singing is very powerful. He flies through notes on the harp at an alarming rate. But just like on other instruments, speed isn’t the end all. 

They played “But Anyway” off of their first album. It was a huge hit in 1990 that put Popper’s harmonica chops – lightning quick, sharp and articulate – on the map. In the mid 2000s they added “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” to their repertoire, with another impressive and speedy solo to play on the  harmonica. 

Neither of these challenging songs, however, were as clean and articulate as they should have been in this show. The notes were mostly all there, but it was kind of muddy. 

Popper’s singing was not as crisp as you would expect either. There didn’t seem to be a lot of energy in him. When he did talk to the audience it was hard to understand what he was saying or even meaning.

Twice during the show Popper left the stage for a few minutes while the band jammed on. Once I could see, but twice made me think he may not be well. I noticed lots of people leaving during  this second break, and that continued throughout the show.

As the band played on I found myself wishing the show would end so I could go home, but as a reviewer my job is to review the whole show. I don’t know if they played an encore or not, because I left as soon as they finished what was assuredly their closing song. Close enough for me.

I had hoped this was just a bad night for Blues Traveler. It happens. Big Head Todd and the Monsters saved the show.

As it turns out, John Popper was not well. The Reno show was on Saturday night. On Monday evening Todd Mohr, of Big Head Todd and The Monsters, who is opening for them on the entire tour, announced on their Facebook page that John Popper was ill and Blues Traveler had canceled their portion of the Monday show in Flagstaff. BHTM would be playing a full show for the audience instead.

It’s good to hear that there was a reason for Blues Traveler’s lackluster performance at GSR Saturday night. Hopefully it’s nothing serious and Mr. Popper is feeling well and back in action soon.

Nick McCabe
Nick McCabe
Nick McCabe is a Reno-based photojournalist and musician. He’s been shooting concerts in the Reno-Tahoe area since 2006 and writing articles and reviews since 2012, as well as doing interviews on occasion. His musical education and playing experience goes back to 1967. He is a founding member of the Reno Tahoe Forte’ Awards, and he still plays music locally for enjoyment. First concert: Jimi Hendrix. Last concert: we’ll see.

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