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Traveling forward: Rockers slim down, beef up and bounce back
by Sarah Rodman
Boston Herald, Boston, MA
Apr 27th, 2001

Somewhere, Bobby Sheehan is looking down on his friends in Blues Traveler and deriving some satisfaction that it took two people to replace him.

"Without a doubt," says guitarist Chan Kinchla with a laugh.

Sheehan, Blues Traveler's bassist for the band's entire major label career, died of a drug overdose in August 1999 at age 31. Since then, the groove rockers, who play WBOS' "EarthFest" tomorrow, hired Kinchla's younger brother Tad to take over bass duties and added keyboardist Ben Wilson to their permanent lineup.

Of course, says Chan Kinchla, the two new guys aren't really replacements for his late friend. "He's part of this whole thing every day," he says softly on the phone from L.A., "we're just going in a different direction."

That direction might surprise some longtime fans of the Princeton, N.J., group, which appeared on the scene in 1990 alongside a spate of other improv-minded groups and broke through on the pop charts with 1995's "Run-Around" and "Hook."

The band's new album Bridge, due in stores May 8, features about 50 percent less of John Popper's famous harmonica runs, showcases Wilson's keyboard prowess, explores some jazzy niches, flirts with electronic sounds and is very direct about the days after Sheehan's death.

That change in sound is deliberate, says Kinchla. He adds the band stuck together because that's what Sheehan would have wanted. "So we decided we wanted to move forward. But we didn't want to just try to re-create what we did before. That would be impossible. So we decided we'd make it very clear to whatever musicians we brought in that we weren't hiring them to play like the old Blues Traveler. We wanted to play with some new guys, have fun and see what we came up with."

Among the things they came up with is the textured, harmonica-free single "Girl Inside My Head." The dialing down of Popper's signature harp work was hinted at by the singer while promoting his 1999 solo album, Zygote. It musically makes sense for Bridge says Kinchla, because "now that we have another instrument, a keyboard instrument, that sonically occupies some of that area. And also if John is just playing throughout the whole record, you kind of lose perspective on how great a player he is; it doesn't have as much effect."

Two tracks have plenty of effect. "All Hands" is an eerie, dramatic number filled with flood imagery that, Kinchla says, is "symbolic of where we were at after Bobby died." "Pretty Angry" is a moving ballad, with a graceful solo by Wilson - whom they hired after a national search - that nakedly explores the rage and shock of grief.

Kinchla says it was one of the most difficult numbers for the band to record. Aside from breaking down in the studio, musically they wanted just the right balance. "We wanted it to have a sense of anger, but underneath that we wanted it to be poignant and sensitive at the same time. That was a hard line to cross, we needed to be dark and hopeful, and that's a lot of ground to cover moodwise."

Since it has been more than a year since Sheehan's death, the band's collective mood has improved considerably. "We've really gone through the whole process," says Kinchla. "So we're very comfortable with where we're at. I sometimes feel like we're further along than the crowd, with moving forward."

Indeed, this is the band's first major tour, which also stops at Avalon on May 10, since Sheehan's death. Kinchla says audiences are still a bit somber.

One thing that should bring them joy is Popper's improving health.

"Bob's death really gave John the motivation to take care of himself," Kinchla said of the singer, who just one month before Sheehan's death underwent an emergency angioplasty. Once tipping the scales at 400 pounds, Kinchla says Popper is down to 220. In fact, Kinchla says everyone in the band, which also includes drummer Brendan Hill, is in a healthier frame of mind, invigorated by the new band members, excited to hit the road and grateful, after a decade, to still be in the game.

"The longer I'm able to play music for people who enjoy it and make records with the people I like playing with the more I appreciate it," says Kinchla. "So I'm just really happy we have a band together and we're playing. I'm not trying to compare it to the past, I'm just happy with where it's at right now."

Blues Traveler plays the WBOS-FM (92.9) "EarthFest" tomorrow at the Hatch Shell. Also appearing will be Cowboy Junkies, Joan Osborne, Double Trouble, Fisher and others, from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The event is free.