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Blues Traveler
by Dave E. Michelevitski
Relix, National
May 28th, 1992



Rock seems to have lost the blues somewhere in the last twenty years, lost the heartfelt soul of the great bands; the ones that played with passion, real sweat, gave blood for true love - bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin, early Stones, Hendrix, Janis. They put it all out there and went for something that was just a little more.

Blues Traveler carries on that tradition; harmonica like nobody's business, right-on walkin' bass, loose-hand guitar and hardcore percussion, some happenin' saxophone. A real free-form jamming music fest.

Two years ago, it was easy to catch a Blues Traveler show; they were always playing somewhere in New York City. Since 1987, when the band first started gigging, they have played more than one thousand shows. Last year they played more than 250 gigs nationally and are just now returning from Europe, where they did twenty shows in twenty-one days. Now that they're signed to A&M, if they're not playing out (which is rare), they're working on new tunes in rehearsal and preparing for another tour. With Kindred Spirit as an opening band, Blues Traveler willbeplaying thirty shows in eighteen states in thirty-five days. This brief leg of the six-month international Blues Traveler tour will give them some good exposure.

It is the band's hard work and constant gigging that initially got them the exposure which helped them ascend from the downtown New York music scene to international touring. Says John Popper (harmonica, lead vocals), "I think what got us out of the bars we were playing in was that we weren't playing our greatest hits. We were playing what we really believed in."

In addition to the blustery harp-blower, Popper, and bass man Bobby Sheehan, the band includes Chan Kinchla on guitar and Brendan Hill on drums. Brendan was the original founder of Blues Traveler. It was in his parents' basement in Princeton, NJ that the first incarnation of Blues Traveler, the Blues Band, was formed.

The Blues Band's original members were John, Brendan, Sebastian [Brendan's brother], Felicia Lewis and "a few other bad guitarists." From time to time, their friend, Christopher Barron Gross, would hang with them and do some gigs. Says Popper with uncertain amazement, "We'd, like, be doing a show, and Chris would leap off the stage. He'd just leave and start dancing with some chick. A real poser, that guy. We were into wearing ties and suits and stuff."

Eventually, the Blues Band lost the suits and ties, lost the bad guitarists and found Chan, then Bob. John and Brendan met Eric Schenkman while they were studying at Parson's New School, and Eric jammed with them for a while (Eric and Chris would later form Spin Doctors). Together, with Chris, they wrote "Hard to Exist," a seldom-heard Blues Traveler tune. Other songs born to the Blues Band are "And So It Goes," known to some as "The Wobbling Surfer," known to others as "Fate" (the first song they wrote), as well as "Sweet Talkin' Hippie," "Gotta Get Mean," "Mullin' It Over" and the infamous "Black Cat" jam.

As well as being the logo synonymous with the band, the Black Cat is the band's good luck omen. A weird, eerie silence fills the room when asked of the feline's significance. Popper finally breaks the silence. "Oh, Darren Greene designed the logo," but he knows that's not the question being asked.

He prepares himself and begins slowly and clearly, "Well, a long, long time ago, now this was back in Jersey, just before Bob came in. It was kind of a premonition..."

It used to be that when they rehearsed, the band would work on numbers and play them out before jamming for a couple of hours. One time, instead of doing the play-it-out part, they got really baked and just jammed for three hours. This was the first time they had ever done that.

"We were all like, whoa, like we knew something happened in there," remembers Chan. One of the band members noticed this cat pawing at one of the basement windows, so John decided to call the musical foray they had just ventured into "Black Cat" jam (he didn't actually write the words until the band moved to Brooklyn). Later, when they went outside to have a smoke and listen to "the rarest, most magical Blues Traveler tape ever on Brendan's little brother's Fisher-Price tape player," Black Cat appeared again. He hung out for a while, nuzzling the band members while they listened to the tape, and then, just like that, leapt off. "Sweet Talking Hippie" came out of that jam, as well as "Closing Down the Park," "Gotta Get Mean," "Mulling it Over" and "Weird Chick." Apparently, every time their spirits get low, Black Cat appears.

Spirits have been running high lately, though. With two albums already released on the A&M label, a live EP will be released in September with about four or five tunes on it (proceeds will benefit the Bill Graham Fund). Included will be a twenty-five minute version of "Mountain Cry," featuring Carlos Santana jamming with the group. Also included are "Tiding-Onslaught," "Crystal Flame" and maybe, "100 Years." For their third album (not counting the live EP) the band wants to rent a house somewhere for about a month, and record the whole thing there.

Bobby explains, "The point is, we've got two albums in sterile studio space. We need a place that's a different vibe than live, but without the fluorescent, don't-know-what-it-looks-like-outside [atmosphere]."

"We're caught with too many ideas, and too little time," says John. One of these idas is a project called HORDE. HORDE stands for Horizon of Rock and Roll Developed Everywhere but that's just the working title and will more than likely end up being called something completely different. It's going to be a carnival, a BYOB festival with live bands like Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and Phish. Slated to begin sometime around the end of July 1992, the bands will all have equal billing, equal time and will travel all down the East Coast - beginning somewhere in the deep north and ending somewhere in the deep south. Rumor has it that the New York location may be Central Park.

There'll be bathrooms, booths and vendors. The first and last venue will be two-day camping events, and the whole thing is sure to be a genuine bacchanal. Also in July, Traveler will be playing Red Rocks, CO on the third, and on the fourth, the band has a gig with the Allman Brothers Band.

Of the gathering, Popper says, "...We're all just new bands. We haven't proven what the Dead and the Allman Brothers have proven. We have yet to prove that. We have potential. Our potential for growth," Popper laughs, "that's our whole trip."

And what a trip it's been. Blues Traveler was first billed as kick-ass, psychedelic blues. Says John, "Blues Traveler embodies the blues, in that the music is honest and raw." Chan adds, "Like the way we're carrying on the tradition is, we're trying to do it from our own land. We're from New Jersey, the suburbs of New York." The band members agree, "If Muddy Waters was a white guy living in the suburbs of New Jersey around 1990, he'd sound a lot like us."

"We don't know how to play avant-garde jazz," says John of the psychedelia label, "and psychedelia doesn't really have all that many rules - it's fun, so you can just explore your universe through the wonderful mystery of sound and harmony."

Popper explains, "Our fans are people who like live music. I think there's a lot of really good live music out there that has nothing to do with us..."

"Like Jane's Addiction," says Chan.

"...And Metallica," notes Brendan.

Popper continues. "The Grateful Dead is a live band, a great band, a great live band and they play a lot of gigs. But we don't consider ourselves in the same circle as the Grateful Dead. We're in a much smaller, younger circle. We have our own stories and histories and stuff. You just have to watch out for that MTV bullshit." Traveler doesn't have a video on MTV yet, but, says Popper, "We're working on one, and every once in a while, we'll try again."

Four-and-a-half years ago, in 1987, Blues Traveler took to the streets of New York and, since then, has jammed with the likes of Santana, Grateful Dead, and the Allman Brothers. Traveler has also appeared three times on "Late Night with David Letterman," where Bobby, if he wanted to be on the show at all, once had to play 12-string guitar. Some bands go through all the ropes of the music business, work hard for years and don't accomplish half of what Blues Traveler has.

"Well," says Bobby of their success, "we figured we would come in here, play as much as we could, play a lot live, try and get a record deal, and play all over the world. And in four or five years, we accomplished that, but we still get a myriad of things to do with mass and space - I guess we never really planned it."

Says Popper, "There was no plan." Hard to believe.