“Return to form” is a little too easy, but if you miss the “old” Travis, then the new album, Where You Stand, is the one you’ve been waiting for.
By Adam Ellsworth
It’s official, the “old” Travis are back.
I write this with the full knowledge that many of you didn’t know or care that there were a “new” Travis.
I also write this with the caveat that, at least in this case, “old” is not a bad thing. “Old,” at least here, means “familiar,” as in, “this is the Travis I remember!” “Old” means if you ever fell out with Travis now might be a good time to check them out again. “Old” means the way Travis sounded before they released 12 Memories in 2003.
That was the year “new” Travis started. The Scottish quartet was still made up of the same guys, but they took a bit of a dour turn. The album that preceded 12 Memories was The Invisible Band, and like The Man Who before it, it was filled with songs of striving and yearning and ultimately, uplift. But that album was released in early 2001, in a different world from the 2003 of 12 Memories. By the release of the latter album, “The War on Terror” was in full swing and it showed in the often bleak music Travis were making. Even the more (sort of) upbeat songs on 12 Memories had lyrics like, “half a million citizens gonna die today.” It’s hard to blame them; they were just reflecting the times. But Travis were always better at being happy. Or at least melancholy in a way that was comforting.
Two more albums, 2007’s The Boy With No Name and 2008’s Ode to J. Smith, followed to moderate success. Like 12 Memories before them, it’s not that the albums were “bad,” it’s just that they didn’t sound like the Travis everybody remembered. Every band has the right to evolve, but Travis weren’t evolving so much as shedding what they did best and not replacing it with anything of equal value. Even some of their biggest fans were starting to move on.
To the band’s credit, they’ve since realized this, and have corrected course. After the longest break between albums of their career, the band has returned with Where You Stand and a new tour, which hit the House of Blues in Boston, MA, on Sunday night. “Return to form” is a little too easy, but if you miss the “old” Travis, then the album is the one you’ve been waiting for. The band has no problem admitting that it took them a while to get around to it, either.
“Why did we wait so long?” Healy cried in the chorus of “Mother,” the song that opened the set Sunday night, just as it opens Where You Stand.
“Sing” from The Invisible Band followed, and it might as well have been pre-2003 all over again. The band members have all recently entered their 40s, so while there wasn’t quite the same ebullience that marked their concerts during those early years, it was obvious as they jumped around and interacted with the crowd that they were on a mission to win people back. This doesn’t mean Travis neglected songs from their wilderness years, though. “Selfish Jean,” a rollicking song from The Boy With No Name, followed “Sing,” while “My Eyes” and “Closer,” also from The Boy With No Name, made welcome appearances as well. Even 12 Memories was represented, with that album’s “Re-Offender” and “Love Will Come Through” both receiving warm receptions. Having these songs in the set served as a nice reminder that even though the band took a bit of a detour in the post-Invisible Band years, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some quality tunes being written.
Still, the night belonged to the “old” Travis, even when that meant the band was playing songs from their newest album. “Moving” followed the classic “Pipe Dreams,” while “Warning Sign” and “Where You Stand” were sandwiched between “Driftwood” and “The Cage.” Yes, the literal Travis “oldies” went over best Sunday night, but there was no noticeable drop in crowd energy during the Where You Stand tracks. This certainly bodes well for the band’s future. “Reminder,” a song Healy said he wrote for his son just in case anything ever happened to him, was perhaps the best of the new “old” songs, but they all fit seamlessly in the set.
A false start to “Writing to Reach You,” the opening track to 1999’s The Man Who, provided one the night’s most memorable moments. Half a second after lead guitarist Andy Dunlop produced the song’s opening tone/chime/swoon, everything had to stop because Fran Healy struck his own guitar and no sound came out.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Healy said. “Usually, that’s supposed to come on. You know, it’s traditional, when you strum the guitar, it comes on.”
Healy was laughing, the audience was laughing, and after a few more quips from the lead singer, a roadie ran onstage (Healy: “This is Kenny, everyone.” Audience: “Hi Kenny!”). In a matter of seconds, Kenny was able to deduce that the reason no sound had come out was because the guitar’s volume had been turned all the way down.
Problem solved, the crowd roared, Kenny ran off stage, and Healy made a self-deprecating crack about singers always forgetting to turn the volume of their guitars up. The whole episode only lasted about a minute, but Healy’s humor took what could have been an awkward, embarrassing sixty seconds and turned it into an unforgettable prelude to one of the band’s best loved songs.
An especially rocking version of “Side” came next (you didn’t know Travis could rock, did you?), followed by the always beautiful “Slide Show” and the always raucous (for Travis anyway) “Blue Flashing Light.” The main set closed with “Turn,” a naturally athemic song, that was at least ten times more anthemic Sunday night.
The encore began with “Good Feeling,” from the band’s 1997 debut of same name. “All I Want to Do is Rock,” also from the debut album, boasted Andy Dunlop playing his solo from the front rows of the crowd. Between those two songs was the absolute highlight of the night, “Flowers in the Window.” The song has been a fan favorite since its release on The Invisible Band in 2001.In fact, when I saw Travis in concert that year, an audience member was called onstage before the performance of it so he could propose to his girlfriend. She said yes, everyone went wild, and the happy couple sat on the drum riser for the duration of the song.
Sunday night’s performance of “Flowers” was almost as memorable. As Healy strapped on an acoustic guitar, he was surrounded by his bandmates; drummer Neil Primrose wielded a tambourine, while Andy Dunlop and bassist Dougie Payne put down their instruments to join in on the vocals. It was fun, it was intimate, and, when Healy stopped playing so Dunlop could finger the chords for him and Payne could take over strumming, it was delightfully goofy.
Before closing the night with a rousing rendition of “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” Healy implored the crowd that if they hadn’t already, they should really listen to Where You Stand.
After The Invisible Band, he explained, the band changed its sound because “all the other bands were starting to sound like us.” (I don’t know if I’d go that far, unless of course “all the other bands” is code for “Coldplay.”)
But with Where You Stand, Healy said, they had finally made the true successor to The Invisible Band.
A shameless plug to sell the new album? Perhaps. But Healy also happened to be telling the truth. A lot has happened in music the past ten years, and it’s not very likely that Travis are ever going to be as big or beloved as they once were. If you’re a fan from those years though, you can finally rejoice. In terms of sound anyway, the “old” Travis really are back.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.