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Improvise? Try off-the-cuff music
by Dave Ferman
Fort Worth Evening Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, TX
Nov 22nd, 1991

There aren't many bands left that can really and truly "ja.".

"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 improvisational passages.

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 Research.

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 else.