There aren't many bands left that can really and truly
"Jamming" - once a hallmark of live shows by '60s
stalwarts like Cream, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead -
has come to mean boring, self-congratulatory solos, which is far
removed from re-creating the recorded versions of songs, which is
what most bands want to do anyway. Plus, much alternative and/or
industrial music simply doesn't easily lend itself to long
So what to make of Blues Traveler? Four years after forming in Brooklyn,
and two years after releasing their first CD, Blues Traveler,
singer/harmonica player John Popper, drummer Brendan Hill, bassist Bobby
Sheehan and guitarist Chan Kinchla find themselves part of a very small
group of bands (see the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers) known as
much for live improvisation and song reworkings as recorded output.
No, says drummer Hill, thy don't want to be pigeonholed with the Dead -
although thousands of Deadheads flocked to the band's recent shows near
Denver, a Deadhead stronghold. Rather, Hill says, Blues Traveler - now on
its first headline tour in support of its second CD, Travelers &
Thieves - is synthesizing a wide variety of influences into a whole -
and extending the songs whenever it feels right.
"Now that we're headlining," Hill says, "we can extend
songs more than when we were opening. But we still like to keep the ball
rolling between songs. We like to compare ourselves to the Allmans - like
them, we like to do a really live show. Their crowd is really into music,
and they don't think we're trying to pull one over on them. We just play
what we feel like playing - John has his own sound and the rest of us back
him up and sort of deliver him to the audience."
What Blues Traveler delivers on Travelers & Thieves is a
strong, varied set of bluesy American music, a bouncy mixture of rock,
funk, R&B and jazz - all bolstered by Jim Gaines' excellent production
and an appearance by Gregg Allman on "Mountain Cry". Like
Blues Traveler and the band in concert, you enjoy what you're
hearing, but you can't pin it down.
The nucleus of Blues Traveler was formed in 1983: Popper met Hill when
they both attended high school in New Jersey.
The two met Kinchla - a fan of both the Clash and Led Zeppelin - in '86
and Sheehan joined a year later. The group, first dubbed "The Blues
Band," played keggers and small clubs, renamed themselves Blues
Traveler after Gozer the Traveler, the main bad guy in Ghostbusters, and
relocated to New York after Popper enrolled in the New School for Social
There, Hill says, a saxophone teacher named Arnie Lawrence opened up the
possibilities of improvisation to the band.
The band gained popularity in and around New York, and put out Blues
Traveler. Then the band hit the road, opening for the Allmans,
Santana, the Jerry Garcia Band, Little Feat, the Neville Brothers, Lynyrd
Skynyrd and Youssou N'Dour.
"It was important for us to tour with the Allmans," Hill says.
"It was nice to see a band that could do improvisation night to night
and still get over, and we followed suit."
And in doing so, the band has graduated to small theaters and large clubs
on its first headline tour, a fact that shocks Hill as much as anyone