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Outlasting the blues: A revitalized Blues Traveler shapes up for future
by Chris Jordan
Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, NJ
May 4th, 2001

The road finally took its toll on Blues Traveler.

The Princeton-born band had built a reputation as road warriors in the 1990s, but by 1999, it was too much.

First, 400-pound lead singer John Popper had his weight problem catch up to him. After experiencing chest pains for months, the singer was forced to undergo an angioplasty to relieve blockage around his heart.

Later, in August of that year, bassist Bobby Sheehan, 31, died in New Orleans with three different types of drugs in his system.

"Eventually, we all burned out," said Chan Kinchla, guitarist for Blues Traveler. "You can't keep touring all the time and not run out. It happens to everyone... you just burn out. Part of the challenge as you mature as a band is you learn how to balance things. That's what we're about now - health first."

So says Kinchla, who had just returned from an 8-mile run on the mall in Washington, D.C., where the band recently performed a show, to conduct an interview over the phone. Blues Traveler heads to New York City for a Tuesday show at the Supper Club, and back to near the band's hometown for a Wednesday in-store appearance at CD World in Lawrence Township.

The 31-year old Kinchla's not the only one taking care of himself. Popper has lost 180 pounds since his heart scare, thanks in part to surgery to restrict food intake to his stomach. Popper's tipping the scales at 220, and is hardly recognizable in the group's new publicity photos.

"Bob's death really inspired John to take care of himself," Kinchla said. "We're just very thankful for what we have, to be playing in a band. We're pleased with the music coming out, and we're playing together live."

There's a new, expanded Blues Traveler on the concert stage these days. In addition to Kinchla, Popper and drummer Brendan Hill, Chan's brother, Tad Kinchla is now playing bass and keyboardist Ben Wilson also has been added to the lineup.

"When Bob passed away, we realized - John, Brendan and I, realized - that we didn't want to compound the tragedy by us not being able to play together anymore," Kinchla said of the months following Sheehan's death. "And if we wanted to go on, we realized that we didn't want to try to recreate what we did in the past. It would be a disservice to Bob, and it would be impossible."

Blues Traveler emerged from tree-lined borough of Princeton in the late 1980s to become the leading group in the jam-band movement - which includes Dave Matthews Band and Phish - thanks largely to the founding of the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons Of Rock Developing Everywhere) tour. H.O.R.D.E. galvanized like-minded musicians and fans to become one of the most popular touring music festivals of the 1990s.

The group enjoyed its biggest popular success with 1994's four. The album produced the signature single "Run-Around," which was a hit for much of '95.

This version of Blues Traveler is looking to venture into new territory.

"We were very clear that we wanted it to grow and be something that would challenge us and make us grow as musicians," said Kinchla, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and 3-year old son. "The new people that we picked, we were very clear to them that we wanted them to come and bring their own influences and steer us into different directions, as we would steer them. It's a very living and breathing thing right now, we're not just trying to recreate what we were in the past."

The first album from the new Blues Traveler, Bridge, is a more song-oriented album that consists of less jamming and soloing than on previous works. Wilson's keyboards bring a slightly jazzy feel and Popper's trademark hyper-fast harmonica solos are fewer in number.

But while the band will be touring this spring in support of Bridge, which will be released on Tuesday, don't expect a return to the H.O.R.D.E. days of summer.

"The H.O.R.D.E. tour... was part and parcel to where we were at," Kinchla said. "We were constantly at work on something. It was great that we got to do that (but) right now we're focused on the band, album and learning how to play together. We're a little more home-focused right now."

Thanks, in part, to the sacrifice that Bobby Sheehan made.

"Spiritually," Kinchla said, "we like to think Bob kind of gave something up for us."