(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Concert review - John Popper and the Duskray Troubadours, with Lisa Bouchelle, Funkma$ter, and Judd Louis

11 March 2011 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

A beautiful spring evening and a great night of music. This was my first chance to catch John Popper's latest project, the Duskray Troubadours. The openers were an odd mix: Judd Louis and Funkma$ter on the local side and Lisa Bouchelle, who's on the national tour. Louis' rocking acoustic music fit well, as did Bouchelle's folk rock vibe. Funkma$ter's heavy technical looping work was a tougher match, though.

The crowd was thinner than I'd expected for a big name like John Popper. Maybe people are already getting started on Spring Break. Even though the band deserved a bigger audience and a chunk of Ft. Collins missed a hot show, those of us who did come out were richly rewarded.

Judd Louis
Judd Louis had a shy, folksy stage presence, but his playing was focused and confident. His handful of songs all came from folk or country tinged roots, but his heavily syncopated rhythm pounded them into more of a rock feel. The scarred face of his guitar attests to his strumming intensity.

He brought that same intensity to his singing. With a raspy edge like Ben Ottewell from Gomez, Louis screwed up his face and gave it everything he had. That also gave his set a taste of Dave Matthew's edge. His voice also had that same kind of confessional purging.

With every song so hard driving, there wasn't a lot of room for subtlety. Still, his set was heartfelt. He threw in a generous mix of harmonica, open tunings, and occasional bluegrass licks to keep things interesting.

Funkma$ter's other gig is playing percussion for Ft. Collins' Euforquestra. I haven't seen him since 2009, but last night's show was still centered on his looping setup. He had the same cockpit, surrounding himself with a drum kit, keyboards, guitar, and bass. This time, he didn't pull out the Latin percussion, but he laid down a strong mix of older covers. He continued to impress with his technical abilities to juggle the complexity of his gear while playing a host of instruments. He's gotten even better at tweaking his looped parts in and out of the mix or adding effects in.

In the last two years, his stage presence has improved. He made more effort to interact with the audience when he sang. Unfortunately, he was still too self absorbed during the loop building sections that started each song. He polished each layer, rolling through the changes four or more times before really checking in with the crowd. Creating the layers is the tradeoff for any looper based act, but Funkma$ter needs to figure out how to engage the crowd more during this part.

His best song of the night was a solo blues guitar number, a cover of Keb' Mo's Perpetual Blues Machine. Simple, with no layering, he showed off some nice blues licks and was tightly engaged in the song. Another crowd pleaser was his cover of the Doobie Brothers' Black Water. The complex vocal payoff for the loop layering seemed worth it.

Lisa Bouchelle
Lisa Bouchelle has been slowly building up a national audience. She met John Popper on the 2007 Blues Traveler tour. Lately, she's been opening for Meatloaf, Dennis DeYoung, and now Popper's Duskray Troubadours. Her latest album, Bleu Room With a Red Vase, includes a duet with Popper.

Walking out alone on the stage with her acoustic guitar, she looked the stereotype of the earnest singer/songwriter. The first song's folky start encouraged that, but she quickly picked up the emotional intensity and rhythm to jump into femme folk rock orbit, sounding like 4 Non Blondes. Bouchelle proved to be a talented vocal chameleon, moving from Linda Perry to Bonnie Tyler to Sheryl Crow to Melissa Etheridge. This wide palette of vocal sounds keeps her songs varied and interesting, as she bounces from sweet pop to bluesy rock.

The moods varied too, from the '70s folk rock of Heaven On Credit to the clever Refreshments vibe on Love Is Supposed To Be Fun. Her song, Kitchen, nailed Melissa Etheridge, but she also threw in a lot of cool vocal tricks to stake her own ground. American Dream Gone Wrong tight-roped a space between Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.

Bouchelle's warm stage presence, musical versatility, and talented songwriting made this a good set. The only drawback with her act was that she's so good at shifting roles and sounds from song to song that it was hard to get a line on the "real" Lisa Bouchelle: young, coquettish pop singer, weathered cynic, or old hand performer. That's small criticism, though.

John Popper and the Duskray Troubadours
There's an honor roll of virtuoso harmonica players that includes names like Delbert McClinton, Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, and Little Walter. John Popper has earned his place on that list through his soulful feel and technical brilliance. With Blues Traveler, he showed off his mastery, cascading through blinding single note runs with absolute control and creating a hypnotic swirl of sound that blurred the lines between harmonica, organ, and aria. While he still plays with Blues Traveler, Popper has been getting excited about his latest band project, the Duskray Troubadours. The new group has opened things up for Popper: writing with different people, playing with more subtlety and dynamics, and focusing on fun.

The Duskray Troubadours had a looser, more jangly sound than Blues Traveler. Even when they covered BT songs like But Anyway, The Mountains Win Again, or Runaround, the jam was less pyrotechnic or frantic. While they sometimes broke out some funk, there was more emphasis on soulful grooves crossed with a touch of Southwestern rock. Despite the looser feel, the Duskray Troubadours are a well practiced group of talented players. Kevin Trainor's fills and occasional slide work meshed perfectly with Popper's harp. The backing vocals were always letter perfect.

It was clear to see why John Popper is so happy with this band. He was surrounded by friends, where the joking and camaraderie were woven into the band's DNA. He had the room to be a kid, knowing that it would all work out just fine.

One of my favorite tracks of the night was the haunting blues of Bereft. The drag beat gave it a BB King feel. Popper's soulful vocals slid from crooning to crunch. The harp solo was an organ wail waterfall of sound. Another high point was a high lonesome rocker, Jono Manson's Under the Stone, that drifted into Grateful Dead psychedelia (The Other One and other bits of Jerry).

The Duskray Troubadours played a nice long set (about 100 minutes). The encore brought Lisa Bouchelle up to play her collaboration with John Popper, Only The Tequila Talking, before wrapping up with Runaround.

Popper has praised the Duskray Troubadours for giving him the room to move beyond being the Yngwie Malmsteen of harmonica. But that didn't mean he took it easy. His jams were as astounding as ever. After a long night of the best harp playing I might ever hear, I dreamed of whirling solos..

More photos on my Flickr.

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