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|"Let's call that a rumor," Bobby Sheehan says with a laugh.
The Blues Traveler bassist is referring to a recent statement in the New York Times by frontman John Popper that the band is considering doing an album without Popper's signature harmonica playing.
Sheehan confesses, after very little prodding, that the Princeton, N.J., quartet has already written some harmonica-free songs for its next album.
Fear not, harp fans, Sheehan reassures, "It is there, it sneaks in from time to time." He adds, again with a laugh, "We like to start with a blanket statement and then work our way back from there."
And those attending today's H.O.R.D.E. Festival at the GTE Virginia Beach Amphitheater can rest assured that Popper will bring along some harmonicas. (The H.O.R.D.E. lineup also includes the Barenaked Ladies, Paula Cole, Ben Harper, Alana Davis and more.)
Blues Traveler does like to try something different. The decision to de-emphasize the harmonica on the next record simply came out of a desire for change.
"Blues Traveler has been together since we were all in high school," says Sheehan of the jam-happy quartet, whose hits include "Run-Around" and "Hook." "We've been playing together for 11 years, and we just thought we have so many great songs to play, we don't need a harmonica solo on every song.
"It makes it more special when it shows up, and it also lets us go in another direction, which is great," Sheehan says. "And the proof is in the pudding. When people come out and hear these new tunes (which they've been playing in their H.O.R.D.E. sets), they're not going to miss the harp at all, because John is singing like the songbird that he is and also playing great guitar, plus Chan (Kinchla) has gotten so great at his guitar playing. The whole band is working together, I think, better than we ever have." Expect the familiar harp solos, however, in songs like "Most Precarious" at today's show. "Believe me, you come to a Blues Traveler show, you're going to hear plenty" of harmonica, Sheehan says. "We still have every single song off of the six albums we've done that have harmonica all over them, but now this adds another 10 songs that don't, and a whole different vibe."
H.O.R.D.E. (it stands for Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) itself also has a whole different vibe this year, as Blues Traveler returns to headline the festival it founded six years ago. The concerts suffered from slow sales in some markets in 1997 when the band begged off. (Headliners last year were Neil Young and Beck.)
Sheehan said band members, including drummer Brendan Hill, missed their baby as much as fans missed them.
"Last year we didn't do it because we wanted to see H.O.R.D.E. fly on its own without us, and we also wanted to go to Europe," Sheehan says. "But at the three H.O.R.D.E. shows we did do, we were like, 'This is awesome; why aren't we out here?' So we pretty much made the decision at the end of last summer - honestly having nothing to do with the ticket sales - that we thought it would be fun to do it again."
Sheehan also notes that last year's festival actually sold out in several markets, and he says it was the music media that deemed it less than hot.
Musically speaking, Sheehan says the group was thrilled with the lineup, adding, "I happen to be the biggest Neil Young fan on the planet."
He concedes that slow sales may have been because "a lot of the older, diehard Neil Young fans didn't necessarily want to sit through an entire festival situation."
With a lineup that includes the hot Barenaked Ladies, mesmerizing Harper and newcomer Davis, Sheehan knows first-hand that people will sit through it this year.
Recently in Oklahoma, he says, "it was a hundred degrees, the show started at 2:30 in the afternoon, we went on at 9:30, and the place was still totally packed, and I couldn't believe the amount of energy people still had."