(TOMS RIVER, NJ) -- Music lovers are riding high this Friday, October 27, 2023 evening as they ready themselves for a live concert by the Grammy-winning Princeton-based rock band, Blues Traveler. Tonight’s sold-out show at the Grunin Center for the Arts — located on the campus of Toms River, NJ’s Ocean County College — is a benefit performance presented by the Ocean County College Foundation.
Explains Ken Malagiere, Executive Director of the Ocean County College Foundation, “Our foundation has the privilege of distributing nearly $1,000,000 every year in direct support of our students, and tonight’s concert has raised nearly $50,000 in support of the program.”
Adding, “This is something we really love to do for our community and provides a time when people can come together for a great cause,” Malagiere points out that the foundation also supports the college’s Blauvelt Speaker Series which will feature Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff, actor John Leguizamo, and others in the coming months.
Inside the Grunin Center auditorium, Malagiere welcomes the crowd and thanks the concert committee, sponsors, and supporters of tonight’s event before introducing Blues Traveler announcing, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!”
The members of Blues Traveler —lead vocalist and harmonica player John Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, keyboardist Ben Wilson, bassist Tad Kinchla, and drummer Brendan Hill — take the stage. Popper greets the audience recalling, “I used to drive my moped from Princeton to Toms River, and it was a weird drive!”
Opening with the group’s 1995 Top Ten hit, “Run-Around,” audience members happily stand and dance at their seats as Popper sings, “Oh, once upon a midnight eerie/I woke with something in my head/I couldn’t escape the memory/Of a phone call and of what you said.”
Deftly accompanied by the band, the crowd joins in singing with Popper on the tune’s bouncy “But you/Why you wanna give me a run-around” chorus.
Instantly segueing into the funky blues number, “Things are Looking Up,” Popper emotes with his eyes closed, “I may be down/But things are looking up,” and guitarist Chan Kinchla gets the crowd clapping along before soloing on his gold Gibson Les Paul — bending and winding around the melody with skill and feeling.
The audience cheers as Blues Traveler launches into a cover version of The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Changing the song’s lyrics to “The Devil Went Down to Jersey,” Popper spins a tail about the mythical Jersey Devil before energetically recreating Daniels’ fiery fiddle part on his harmonica.
In addition to improvising on the mouth harp, Popper also scat sings as he and the band segue into the fast and bluesy “New York Prophecy.”
Taking the crowd on a musical journey, concertgoers listen with their ears and bodies as they enjoy Blues Traveler’s appealing amalgamation of clever songwriting, taut arranging, and virtuoso vocal and instrumental performances.
Morphing into Sublime’s 1996 ska/reggae number, “What I Got,” the crowd sings along with Popper on the song’s “Love is what I got” refrain. After Popper improvises on the melody, bassist Tad Kinchla impresses with his agile and rapid bass line.
Ben Wilson and Chan Kinchla play off one another on organ and guitar on the funky R&B tune, “Groove Me,” before the musicians smoothly segue into Blues Traveler’s 1996 Top 40 hit, “But Anyway.” Popper sings, “I lied and told her I loved her/She didn’t care, but anyway” as concertgoers stand, dance, and sing along on this infectious rocker. When the tempo slows down, Wilson plays cascading runs for Popper to improvise over while music lovers, directed by guitarist Chan Kinchla, clap along.
The crowd hoots and hollers, and Popper exclaims, “You guys are awesome!” and Chad Kinchla adds to his colleague’s sentiment when he announces, “We’re so happy to be here in our home state!”
Chad sings lead on a cover version of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” before he, Wilson, brother Tad Kinchla, and Popper sing in four-part harmony on this funky and bluesy rap-inspired selection.
The band slows down to segue into a cover version of Son Seals’ “Funky Bitch.” Wilson wails on keyboard as he’s joined by guitar, bass, and drums, and music lovers’ hands clap in the air to Popper’s vocal on this funky blues-rocker.
Following a reprise of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” — where Popper tosses a blues harp out to a fan in the crowd explaining, “This is a special harmonica for a special fan. It’s his 240th show” — the band leaves the stage to feature Popper on the poignant ballad, “Ode from the Aspect.” Accompanied by Wilson on keyboard, Popper cries, “But for all I’ve ever tried to tell you/I just couldn’t seem to say how much I care,” getting the crowd eating out of his hand as they cheer and applaud for his emotional performance.
The rest of the musicians return to play a highlight selection of the evening — Blues Traveler’s infectious and funky rocker, “Carolina Blues.” A train-like vibe powers the group’s performance which thunders with passion and feeling on this audience pleaser. Popper’s harmonica cries and Chan Kinchla’s guitar wails atop the wall of sound generated by the band.
The musicians exit the stage leaving Brendon Hill to pound out a driving drum solo. Filled with complex rolls, Hill rocks his drum set while captivating the crowd with his top-notch percussion skills and playing power.
Audience members hoot and holler as the band members return for their final number — Blues Traveler’s 1994 Top 25 hit, “Hook.” Music lovers stand, dance, and sing along with Popper and his colleagues on the song’s “The hook brings you back/I ain’t tellin’ you no lie” refrain. Popper plays a wild and free harmonica solo and impressively executes the song’s rapid rap prior to the number’s climactic conclusion.
The crowd stands and cheers as the musicians fist bump with audience members, Chan Kinchla distributes guitar picks, and Brendon Hill hands out drumsticks to excited fans.
As concertgoers exit the Grunin Center auditorium, they comment on tonight’s performance by Blues Traveler. Remarks Madison from Bayville, “Blues Traveler was great! I feel like I grew up listening to a lot of their songs because my dad is a musician — he’s a drummer — and after the show, it was really cool because I got a drumstick to bring home to him.” Acknowledging, “This was the first time I’ve seen the band and they’re amazing,” Madison explains, “The vibe was really cool and I loved how all the songs flowed from one into another.”
Matt, a long-time Blues Traveler fan from East Windsor, recalls, “I’ve seen the band between 40 and 50 times, and I thought they did a great job tonight playing a lot of stuff everybody knows including some covers, some older stuff, and some newer stuff — just a really good set,” prior to declaring, “As usual, their musicianship was completely stellar across the board.”
Whereas Wayne from Beachwood remarks, “Tonight’s show was fantastic! I couldn’t have asked for anything better — Blues Traveler is a class act,” John from Forked River suggests, “It was classic getting these Jersey guys to come out to a small place like this right in the midst of a big tour,” before adding, “What else could you ask for?”
Lastly, Dave from Toms River asserts, “Tonight’s show was awesome! We need to get more acts like Blues Traveler to appear here locally because they’ll pack the house every time,” prior to summing up the entire evening in just six words: “Great performers, great venue, great night!”
To learn more about Blues Traveler, please go to bluestraveler.com. For information on upcoming events at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center of the Arts — including Classic Stones Live on November 11, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff on November 15, and actor John Leguizamo on April 24, 2024 — please go to grunincenter.org.
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