For the members of Blues Traveler, life is one big, happy tour.
The members of Blues Traveler are settling down to be
interviewed, and before the first question is posed,
singer-harmonica player John Popper has an urgent agenda -
"Something I've gotta get out of the way, and I've gotta
make a very important request that you print this." Readers,
take note: The lyrics provided with copies of the band's new
album, Travelers & Thieves, contain several errors.
For the correct version, please address a letter to: I Want the
Right Lyrics, 282 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11205. No
mention is made of including a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
Such guileless zeal may not distinguish the twenty-four-year-old
Popper from any number of young musicians eagerly promoting their
work, but Blues Traveler - whose members are all in their early
twenties - has already racked up a list of credits that many
older and jaded artists would envy. Since being signed to
A&M, they've shared the stage with the likes of Jerry Garcia,
Lynyrd Skynyrd, Santana, Little Feat, Youssou N'Dour and the
Allman Brothers, and the music-biz veterans who have supported
them along the way include Gregg Allman, who lent keyboards and
backing vocals to a track on Travelers called
"Mountain Cry," and the late concert promoter Bill
Graham, whose son David manages the group.
Popper met drummer Brendan Hill in 1983, while both were
high-school students in Princeton, New Jersey. By 1987, lead
guitarist Chan Kinchla and bassist Bobby Sheehan had completed
Blues Traveler's lineup, and the group began playing at parties
in the college town. When Popper enrolled in New York City's New
School, he and his band mates took it as a cue to test their luck
in the Big Apple; they soon became regulars at clubs like
Nighingale's and Wetlands. "I think New York has worked so
well for us as a band because the music scene is so eclectic, and
we fit into that," explains Kinchla.
Indeed, the members of Blues Traveler cite a list of musical
heroes covering virtually every classic-rock category: Popper's
early fascination with the blues - his emotive harmonica playing
is a band staple - gave way to a Hendrix fixation that lingers;
Sheehan, another Hendrix admirer, also acknowledges Neil Young
and the Kinks; Kinchla's tastes range from Led Zeppelin to the
Clash; and Hill's from Pink Floyd to the Police. The group's
sound, as a result, combines the loose funkiness and extended
soloing typical of late-sixties, early-seventies rock with a
sharp, driving rhythmicity that clearly owes more to modern
influences. Popper describes it thus: "If Muddy Waters was a
white guy living in the suburbs in the late eighties, he'd sound
a lot like us."
One group of music fans that has been drawn in by the group's
diverse brew is that breed of devoted Grateful Dead fans commonly
referred to as Deadheads. As Blues Traveler has increased its
following over the past couple of years, many of these fans have
taken to attending its shows on a regular basis, some of them
even traveling from place to place as hard-core Deadheads are
known to do. "We sort of wonder exactly why that is,"
admits Sheehan. "I mean, I've always liked the Dead, but the
rest of the guys were never really into them."
Kinchla suggests that Dead fans may be attracted by the
spontaneity of Blues Traveler's live shows: "We do a lot of
improvising; that part's in a similar vein." For Popper,
though, a connection also lies within the sound itself.
"Deadheads like music that jams," he says.
"Playing live is our main thing," says Sheehan, and the
rest of the band agrees. "If we stay self-sufficient by
making a living on gigs," explains Kinchla, espousing a
philosophy that is appropriate for a band with a heavy following
of Dead fans, "it's not that important that the records are
Still, the young men in Blues Traveler are quick to acknowledge
the support which A&M Records and producer Jim Gaines (Stevie
Ray Vaughan) have given them, and are slow to rest on their
laurels. Having played well over 200 shows in one year alone, the
band members flaunt diligence and persistence as readily they do
their chops. Typically, Popper offers a line to sum up their
approach: "If there's not a scene around to get in with,
make your own."