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Blues Traveler just needed to get away from the H.O.R.D.E.
by Andy Smith
Providence Journal-Bulletin, Providence, RI
Nov 24th, 1997

PROVIDENCE - This summer, for the first time, Blues Traveler did not play the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, the traveling roadshow it started in 1992 and has nurtured to considerable success. But the band is coming to The Strand in downtown Providence Friday, with teen bluesman Jonny Lang opening.

"After five summers doing H.O.R.D.E., we decided it would be a good idea to try something else, so we went to Europe to do some festivals," said guitarist Chan Kinchla. "It made perfect sense to us at the time."

H.O.R.D.E., which stands for Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere, is still owned by the band, and over the years it has come to stand for a whole rock genre - improvisational bands that establish a close relationship with their audiences through constant touring. The spiritual progenitor of the H.O.R.D.E. band was the Grateful Dead.

"I call it improvisational people music," Kinchla said. "It's been going on for ages... there was a whole group of bands we met playing the college circuit at the same time - The Spin Doctors, Phish, The Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic..."

Blues Traveler fits neatly into that group. In their case, the band is mostly defined by the interplay between Kinchla and the virtuoso harmonica playing of frontman John Popper, who carries scores of harmonicas in bandoliers around his rotund body.

Although the band's got the blues in its name, you wouldn't call this a blues band.

"It (the blues) is very honest, emotive music, and we try to be true to that part of it," Kinchla said. "But we realized early on that the music is very different from where we were coming from. We're not black guys from the Mississippi, we're white guys from the suburbs."

Jam and hooks

Blues Traveler has just released a new album, Straight On Till Morning. Although it still leaves plenty of room for the jam, there is also an emphasis on succinct hooks.

"We spent a lot of time on the songwriting," Kinchla said. "We took a month off just for the four of us to work on the songwriting. We feel more comfortable now in the studio, which is a very different vehicle for communicating music than playing live."

The album includes "Carolina Blues":, a potent blues rocker; the driving "Great Big World"; and sweet love songs like "Canadian Rose" and the sentimental, string-laden "Yours".

"John is a very passionate person," said Kinchla of Popper, the band's chief songwriter. "He's not afraid of that side of his personality."

Popper also includes some social commentary, such as the acerbic "Business As Usual" and "Psycho Joe (Goes to the Electric Chair)", a look at madness, revenge, media and the death penalty.

Kinchla said the band wrote between 30 and 40 songs for the album, and used what they considered the best 13.

"It's nice to have some new material to play," said Kinchla, particularly because the band likes to play long shows. Even though H.O.R.D.E. was their own festival, Blues Traveler still felt restricted by the 90-minute limit on their sets.

Of course, when they opened for the Rolling Stones in September, the band couldn't exactly jam for three hours, but that's the price you have to pay when you set the table for The Greatest Rock Band in the World.

"It was nice to see all those free Stones shows," Kinchla said. "I remember in '91 coming to New York and trying to get tickets to see The Stones, and they were like $100 apiece, so we never went."

Blues Traveler opened for the first date of the Stones' current tour, in Chicago on Sept. 23, and played with them for the next 10 dates.

"They were pretty relaxed - I guess after 30 years you get used to it," Kinchla said. "They were very nice... I wouldn't say we'll be spending weekends together on the Riviera, but they were very cordial."

For bassist Bob Sheehan, touring with the Stones had its disadvantages. He was arrested after customs officials found two grams of cocaine in his wallet during a search of the Stones' plane at Winnipeg International Airport in Canada. Sheehan was released on $5,000 bail.

"It's not like we had to say anything to him. He's pretty embarrassed about it," Kinchla said, adding that the arrest has not affected the band's tour.

Princeton roots

Blues Traveler got its start 11 years ago in Princeton, N.J. (Kinchla's father teaches at Princeton University), and built a fan base through constant touring. The band's commercial breakthrough came thanks to the success of the single "Run-Around" in 1995.

"Getting a song on the radio is something that definitely helps... more people go to the shows, and if you're lucky enough to get on the top 40, you can make a lot of money... Of course, the surefire way not to get on the radio is to try to get on the radio."

As for H.O.R.D.E., Blues Traveler plans to be back on board next year. In the meantime, the festival moved in a different direction this year, upping its hipness quotient with Neil Young and Beck.

"Musically, it was more interesting and diverse, and that's what we're trying to achieve," Kinchla said. "We've been able to attract a broader range of music, which is a very good thing."

Blues Traveler plays the Strand, 79 Washington St., Providence, on Friday, with opening act Jonny Lang. Doors open at 8 p.m.; admission is $21.50. For information, call 272-0444.