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Travis makes a connection

November 13, 2008|Steve Appleford | Appleford is a freelance writer.

Travis is not a band known for big rock moves. Not with all those soaring pop ballads and modern mid-tempo hits. But guitarist Andy Dunlop seemed to be having an Iggy Pop or Paul Stanley moment Tuesday at the Troubadour, climbing the stage scaffolding while playing a wild one-handed solo on "All I Want to Do Is Rock."

That's a side of the Scottish band rarely harnessed on its recorded work, focused instead on easy melody and romantic longing that's often too polished and self-controlled to be essential listening. Travis invested something more in the band's two-hour live set, including several songs from the just released "Ode to J. Smith" album.

The Troubadour show was a special event in a smaller venue, and the band's only 2008 performance in the U.S. Travis opened the night with three songs from the new album, beginning with "Chinese Blues," erupting with raging guitars and driving piano melody before easing into singer-guitarist Fran Healy's words of dread: "A million lonely people with their head in the sand / Trying to make some sense of what they don't understand."

Never a consistent critics' favorite, Travis arrived from Glasgow just when a number of bands with a similar palette were emerging from the dying embers of Britpop in the mid-'90s and bridged the gap between early Radiohead and the anthemic, romantic balladry of Coldplay. In that company, Travis was neither as intense nor life-altering, but found an international audience with songs that were at their best emotional and mildly ambitious in the form of "Sing," "Re-Offender" and other catchy pop.

The new album is a promising sign for the journeyman act, igniting the tuneful "J. Smith" with sparks of big electric guitar. Although other songs from Travis' catalog can be as pretty as they are easy to forget, fans at the Troubadour sang along with all of them. Travis has grown into a fully realized live act of real firepower.

Healy was a warm and good-humored host between songs, in black hat and Windbreaker, joking with the crowd and comparing last week's election with the first moon landing in 1969. He also led a long round of applause for KCRW DJ and departing "Morning Becomes Eclectic" host Nic Harcourt, an early champion of Travis, who was watching from the balcony.

The singer stepped offstage and waded into the crowd for some intimate crooning on "Falling Down," as Dunlop unleashed a burst of twangy guitar, and then climbed back up in time for a playful "Long Way Down." Holding back was no problem for Travis this time. Intensity may not be the band's specialty, but its members showed a gift for real connection when the audience is close enough to feel it.

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