Last night was special. A band with a lot of history played in a venue with a lot of history. And the resulting music, particularly when they got into that indescribable groove, was as invigorating as the sun on your skin. It was one of the first hot days of the year, and Jersey City was filled with people celebrating the change, embracing the drizzles of rain that whipped around in the sticky air. Many of those people were on their way to White Eagle Hall to see Blind Melon, and several were already there for the meet-and-greet, lounging outside on the steps with the bandmates themselves.
The historic venue – built in 1910 as a community center, and used for everything from bingo to dance recitals to basketball to early Sinatra appearances – was just restored a year ago (April 2017) and is looking gorgeous. A quick and easy trip from NYC on the PATH train, it’s a spot you don’t want to snooze on, as there are some big names due to come through and the sound was fantastic. Once you’d duly admired the psychedelic Blind Melon tour posters and tie-dye tees for sale up front, White Eagle Hall’s interior was something to gaze at. Sunlight turned dark blue and green in the intricate stained glass overhead, and for the convenience of attendees, there was a nice perimeter of seating around the balconies.
The venue’s rich acoustics were evident in the first notes from The Cringe, the NYC alt-rockers who opened the show. Singer John Cusimano (who foodies may know as the spouse of Rachael Ray) was fuelled by the band’s energy and always on the move, giving out guitar picks and even hanging upside-down off the edge of the stage while he sang. “What’s up Jersey City? Every time we come to town, we get into trouble!” he said before they kicked off “Big Trouble” from their fifth and latest album, 2015’s Blind Spot. Keeping spirits high before the headliners, the band nailed a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and closed with their take on Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak,” in which Cusimano infused the sirens with a megaphone. “You know how I can tell it’s a rock show? I can smell a lot of weed…and I can see a lot of Blind Melon fans,” he mentioned with a laugh. And he wasn’t exaggerating; there were original Blind Melon tour shirts in sight all throughout the audience.
Many bands get a nice welcome when they walk onstage, but the love for Blind Melon was really impassioned. The Jersey City crowd, amazingly wide-ranging in age, roared with warmth when the well-known L.A. band – comprised of Rogers Stevens, Brad Smith, Christopher Thorn, Glen Graham, and current singer Travis Warren (since ‘07) – appeared, Warren first concealed in a large bird mask, hat, and flight goggles, traversing the stage in bare feet. From the way their setlist was annotated, you could tell they’d made a late-breaking decision to shift “I Wonder” from the middle of the set to the very first slot, and the ‘92 hit was a powerful way to start the show. It was the first of many times last night that Blind Melon’s dedicated fans would surge to higher volumes than the band, belting the words the way one does when a scratched and treasured CD has been floating around in your car for several years. The vibe seemed particularly intimate in the old hall last night, which felt satisfyingly far from NYC. Sometimes, it felt far from the rest of the universe, especially when Blind Melon sank into one of their pulse-racing, long-lasting jams, all five members often forming a tight circle with wild excitement in their eyes.
Rewarding the crowd with favorite after favorite, the generous set had too many highlights to count – among them “Toes Across the Floor,” “Holyman,” “Soup,” “Change,” “Soak the Sin,” and a goosebump-inducing “Sleepyhouse,” all topped off, of course, with a massive singalong of the chart-topping classic, “No Rain.” All through the night, the band was as affectionate as ever, often reaching down to shake hands or make little jokes with those up front between songs. Guitarist Rogers Stevens was physically invested in every one of his searing riffs, and his expression remained intensely focused, as if he was yanking a tablecloth out from under fragile glassware. Bringing everyone even closer was a shared obsession for Blind Melon’s music, which revealed itself from the very first song, flooding the room with good feelings and big swells of applause.
It’s one of the most beautiful things when a band can face a traumatic loss and somehow forge a path ahead and continue playing music. The fatal overdose of original singer Shannon Hoon in 1995 is still a raw wound for many fans, so it’s impossible to imagine how it weighs on the band song after song. The overall sentiment, though, seemed so much more celebratory than one might imagine after such a tragic event in their history. Though Hoon is impossible to replace, the audience welcomed current singer Travis Warren as warmly as the band did in 2007 – and once you heard him sing, it was easy to understand why. Warren’s vocal ability is incredibly strong, with the capacity to scream and leap octaves with dulcet tonality and strength. Admirably, he also performed with a lot of reverence and respect; as if getting it just right was a thousand times more important than impressing anyone (though he certainly did both).
Warren didn’t give any speeches or take much time away from the music, but he did briefly reveal how much it meant to him to be performing for last night’s crowd. “What a beautiful night tonight, man,” he said lovingly. “Feels so good to be here tonight. Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley