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Blues Traveler emerges from troubles with sonic grace
by Matt Despres
Mass Daily Collegian, Amherst, MA
May 10th, 2001

The musical equivalent of standing up from a card game with your hand face-up on the table, Bridge, the latest release from 90's jam band pirates Blues Traveler, is an exercise in letting it out and forging a new identity, and that's only after having spent the better part of a decade dodging such singular labels and handles.

Still working through the tragic loss of bassist and founding member "Brooklyn" Bob Sheehan - for whom this album is formally dedicated - Blues Traveler has forged onward with new faces (Tad Kinchla, brother of guitarist Chan, on bass; and Ben Wilson on keyboards) and sounds that, while not entirely original, blend together a heaping of the Old School and a splash of what's to come.

Album opener "Back in the Day" screams for the pleasure that is frequent radio massage, and with good reason - an accessible chorus, tight instrumentation and easy-to-digest lyrics have long been the popular norm, and while Blues Traveler has always been and will continue to be a live band, they've learned to rein in the loose ends and construct pop ditties that fit comfortably into the waiting hands of Top 40 radio.

"Girl Inside My Head," the album's first release, is perhaps the band's most successful attempt at crafting a piece of pop candy to be stretched into something more beautiful and abstract on tour. Undeniably infectious from the start, and highlighted by a Wilson showcase on keys, the song is sweetened by singer John Popper's voice, a beautiful instrument itself, far too often overshadowed by his virtuoso harmonica playing.

The album's gloss is rooted in something darker, however - the act of a band embracing, not running, from a death some two years gone. Sheehan's memory haunts every track, particularly on cuts like "Pretty Angry," in which Popper draws his lost friend into an intimate dialogue. "And I guess I'm still pretty angry/And I don't want to be/I don't know which was the bigger waste of time/Missing you or wishing instead it was me."

Even where Sheehan isn't lyrically referenced, his inimitable power continues to loom. While Kinchla does a surprisingly good job of easing into a role some thought could never be re-cast, his unique talents still need time to grow - on both the listeners and his band mates.

As often as Blues Traveler touches down on those dark points, though, they have connected the spaces between with the freewheeling, fun loving spirit that have made past studio efforts and live shows so enjoyable. "The Way," which made its full band debut at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston four years ago, is an optimistic tune colored in all the right spots by Popper's nimble harp and smart production. Musically and lyrically liberating, the song gathers both speed and size as it rolls along.

If "The Way" is the blissful climb to the top, then "Decision of the Skies" is the contemplative break waiting at the peak. Originally intended for a now discarded concept album, "Skies" is a beautifully composed song that floats along in a Stevie Wonder-esque vein, placing on top of his influence a unique songwriting effort that appropriately caps the album.

Simmering under the many light pop-song sensibilities, however, is the band's love of a burned and driven effort, revealing an edge still sharp after years of exhaustive touring. Both Kinchla and Wilson perform wonders for the remorseless "All Hands," which churns with passion and simple, raw musical chops. "You're Burning Me" plays in the confines of that shadow, borrowing the granular tone while carving a shape of its own. And, as on every track here, drummer Brendan Hill simply comes to play.

In the end, Bridge accurately reflects the number of moods a band will go through when forced to rediscover itself, resulting in a fair share of growing pains. Those pains, however, for a band that's been around the block like this one has, will become motivations in the future, driving each member to further explore the enormous capabilities and talent they have. While not their strongest effort to date (see 1991's Travelers and Thieves and 1993's Save His Soul), this Bridge more than holds its share - both the memory of an old friend, and the talents of a group headed into a new beginning.