When the caravan of Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler, Big Head Todd & the Monsters and Cracker rolls into town Saturday on their Last Summer on Earth Tour, it wouldn’t be any surprise to spot a handful of dusted-off H.O.R.D.E. tour T-shirts out in the crowd.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the inaugural traveling festival known as Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere that helped launch “jam band” as a genre and the 25th year for its founding group, Blues Traveler.
“It’s a ’90s fest,” admits Blues Traveler guitarist Chan Kinchla, on the phone from Toledo, Ohio, at the tour’s first stop of the summer. “It’s just the good bands from the ’90s, though. Over the years, we’ve played with all these guys. It’s a cool bill, and in some respects it’s got a little H.O.R.D.E. vibe to it.”
Although veterans like Widespread Panic, Phish and the Dave Matthews Band are better remembered as H.O.R.D.E.’s core groups, Big Head Todd actually co-headlined the 1993 tour while Barenaked Ladies shared top billing with Blues Traveler throughout 1998’s final iteration.
By reuniting for the Last Summer on Earth tour this year, the groups are able to play to larger audiences in bigger venues than they otherwise would nowadays. Each of the four bands experienced the peak of their fame in the ’90s, from hits like Cracker’s “Low” in 1993 to Barenaked Ladies “One Week” in 1998.
Although each group has continued to tour and record new music, they’ve also persisted without the support of the major label backing that they once enjoyed.
Blues Traveler released its 11th album, “Suzie Cracks the Whip,” in June, hot on the heels of March’s “25,” a double disc of hits and rarities celebrating a quarter-century as a band.
“We’re always pushing to get something going,” Kinchla said of the group’s ongoing ambitions. “In the end, we just love it when people come out to hear us play, and we’re really thankful to be able to make a career out of it. In the end, we’ll take what we can get.”
Kinchla admits that albums like 2006’s “Bastardos” were not the band’s best work, a reality they kept in mind during last year’s sessions for “Suzie Cracks the Whip.”
“What we really wanted to do was make sure the album was good fun; something that you can put on at a party and play all the way through and just enjoy it,” Kinchla said. “For the last couple of records, we’d kind of been experimenting, which had some success and a downside. We would usually get five or six songs that we thought were pretty good and then another five or six. ... This time we utilized some other people to help round it out.”
Special guest and songwriting credits on “Suzie Cracks the Whip” include Ron Sexsmith, “American Idol” runner-up Crystal Bowersox and long-time pal Chris Barron of Spin Doctors.
The results include the songs “Things Are Looking Up” and “You Don’t Have to Love Me,” both of which hark back to a classic Blues Traveler sound highlighted by loose grooves held together by Kinchla’s tight guitar licks and lead singer John Popper’s unmistakable harmonica work.
“Playing with this group of bands doesn’t mean it has to be a nostalgia tour,” Kinchla said of the challenge of remaining relevant years after each of the Last Summer on Earth groups’ last major hits. “There’s nothing wrong with having a tour from an era. And we played the new album front to back at Red Rocks (Colorado) and it went over pretty ... well.”
One less lady
After becoming one of the most successful independent bands of all time on the strength of songs such as “Brian Wilson,” “Shoebox” and “If I Had $1,000,000,” Barenaked Ladies also experienced a decline in sales and popular awareness after peaking with 1998’s “Stunt” and its hit song “One Week.”
Leaving behind their record deal in 2004, Barenaked Ladies formed their own label, Fresh Baked Woods, on which they released the 2006 set “Barenaked Ladies are Me” and “Barenaked Ladies are Men.”
In 2009, they weathered the departure of band co-founder and songwriter Steven Page, leaving partner Ed Robertson as the sole frontman.
Bassist Jim Creeggan, multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearn and drummer Tyler Stewart each stepped up their roles as singers and songwriters for 2010’s “All in Good Time,” the first studio release as a quartet.
“A lot of those songs that Steven and Ed wrote together, we still have a strong attachment to,” explains bassist Creeggan. “We’d played them for 20 years, so a song like ‘Good Boy,’ we’ll still pull it out. It’s a part of our sound that we still want to share with our fans.”
The band is known for sharing through engaging banter at live shows and releases of B-sides and rarities such as 2012’s “Stop Us If You’ve Heard This One Before!”
Still, the highlights on the new disc are live cuts from the ’92-94 era, including “Shake Your Rump,” “Same Thing” and an acoustic version of “The Old Apartment,” songs either written by Page or highlighting his rich harmonies and energizing stage presence.
Although the challenge of reinventing Barenaked Ladies is still a work in progress, the band is anticipating a shot of new exposure with the debut of “Animal House: The Musical” next year.
Directed by Casey Nicholaw (of Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon”), the band is in the process of writing 18 songs for the two-act play.
“We’re creating a story within the ‘Animal House’ context. It’s kind of a playground with those characters that we have to piece together into a story based on the movie, with a song that can really drive each scene home,” explains Creeggan. “We’ve been learning the musical mantra that, ‘When there’s nothing left to say, you sing.’ That’s where we step in.”
Staying involved with projects such as “Animal House” has helped Barenaked Ladies continue to draw crowds in their native Canada and across the United States. For the Last Summer on Earth Tour, they’ll close out each night, with Blues Traveler preceding them after Cracker and Big Head Todd.
Creeggan fondly recalls jam sessions on stage and off during Barenaked Ladies’ 1998 run with H.O.R.D.E., emphasizing his excitement about sit-ins and collaborations between the four bands during the tour.
Blues Traveler’s Kinchla hopes that by the tour’s second week, when it hits Charleston, they’ll be clicking and hitting their stride.
“Right now, everyone’s just trying to figure out where the gear goes, but once we get rolling, we’ll be having some fun with it, for sure,” Kinchla said. “Charleston should be prime time. We’ll be getting our tour legs under us but we’ll still be fresh.”
Another of the tour’s acts, Cracker, made news in June when singer David Lowery (also of Camper Van Beethoven) publicly called out a young NPR blogger for admitting that most of her music collection was acquired via file-sharing (her purpose for the article was to express faith in the music industry’s future through paid-subscription services such as Spotify).
BNL’s Creeggan agrees that fans need to respect that artists spend money and time to produce their music and should be compensated, but also sees “something to celebrate” about streaming services that give fans access to a vast and diverse collection of music.
“Artists can’t rest on the old business models,” Creeggan said. “Still, just like investing in a company, you shouldn’t let the distance between yourself and the company you invest in mask or hide the need to make ethical choices.”
For Barenaked Ladies part, Creeggan said it’s time for the band to adjust one of their classic songs to account for inflation. After striking gold at the turn of the century with “One Week,” Creeggan said he bought “lots of camping equipment” but never picked up a K-car or a monkey (items listed in the popular song “If I Had $1,000,000”).
“I still have the same tent I bought with the money we made from that record, although it needs a new rain fly,” Creeggan said. “The song has got to be accurate though. We should probably change it to ‘If I had $1,500,750.09,’ but that just doesn’t really work lyrically.”