“Have you seen him yet,” a girl I didn’t know turned and asked me. “He sounds just like him, he even has a Shannon Hoon tattoo on his back.”
It was last weekend and we were in the crowd watching the stage as some roadies rushed about checking amps and moving kick drums into place. Everyone at Headliners, a small, smoky venue in Columbia, South Carolina had come excited to see Blind Melon play, myself included. After all, it had been a long time since any of us had heard the band since they captured our young mind’s attention back in our middle and high school days.
The nameless girl next to me continued to talk. “They say he offered to play with them for free, he just wanted to make music.” Of course she was referring to Blind Melon’s newest addition and only personnel change in the past 13 years, lead singer and guitarist Travis T. Warren. A few songs into the show he came to the microphone and told the audience that the next song was “one of Shannon’s” and dedicated the song and concert to the band’s former front man, who died of a cocaine overdose in 1995.
The band played many of Hoon’s songs that night, including “Soup”, “Change”, “Skin” and “Walk” among others. The split between these regulars from the band’s touring days in the early nineties and the new songs off the band’s April 2008 release For my Friends, was about 50/50. As I walked out of the club, I was a little quieter than usual, not knowing what to make of what I had seen.
It was a good show; great energy from both the crowd and the band and it was a show with very talented musicians playing some great Blind Melon songs. But the longer I thought about it the more I kept coming back to the same thought. I didn’t just see Blind Melon. I know that’s what it said on my ticket stub, but it wasn’t what I just finished watching.
Not to take anything away from Travis Warren. Listening to his music before his recent affiliation with Blind Melon, there’s no disputing his talent. It’s also easy to see why the band chose him to replace Hoon. He walks and talks and sings just like him. In fact, when asked about his musical influences Warren lists Hoon above all others.
This is relatively uncharted territory and tricky to navigate. Should a group replace a deceased band member with a caricature of him? Ten years after Ronnie Van Zant died in a 1977 plane crash, Lynyrd Skynyrd started touring again with his younger brother Johnny. The band obviously wasn’t the same, and was reduced to playing extended versions of “Freebird” to state fairs across the country.
The band members of Blind Melon, which include Rogers Stevens, Christopher Thorn and the rest are great musicians. I don’t think anyone would advocate that they never play music again, or even never play Melon songs again. When Rage Against the Machine absorbed Chris Cornell and became Audioslave, the group dynamic changed, not better or worse but different and healthy. Employ the talents of someone whose own musical aptness can create a new musical species and point the group in a fresh direction. Bringing in Travis was a little too close to the familiar creative mixture and it sells their artistic talents short. The new songs to come out of this pairing are average fare, and easily consumed. No one in the room that night could argue against the fact that the brightest moments of the show were when the band played songs that were born out of Hoon’s unique vision and unmatched passion.
Some will say it is unfair to compare the old Blind Melon to the new, and it is. But when you play shows that sandwich the two animals together, on a song by song basis, that’s what you force us to do.
However, if you feel a need to see and hear with your own senses, Blind Melon comes to Chicago later this month with a show at the Lincoln Park Zoo, July 25th.
“No Rain” (Live @ Langerado 2008)