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Building a better Blues Traveler
by David Pencek
Norwich Bulletin, Norwich, CT
Apr 11th, 2002

For their second album with the new lineup, the members of Blues Traveler decided on a different approach.

Instead of recording the record and then touring, the band will perform the new material on the road during a spring and summer tour before heading into the studio to record.

Keyboardist Ben Wilson, one of the two newest members, said the approach is making for a better experience than when the group first came together for its 2001 CD Bridge.

"We're more cohesive," Wilson said during a recent phone interview from Austin, Texas. "We've been writing together. We're more tight and together.

"We didn't have luck with Bridge. There were some issues we weren't able to get worked out. We didn't see eye-to-eye with the record company and things didn't go as well as hoped."

Released last spring, Bridge was the first Blues Traveler album with Wilson and bass player Tad Kinchla. It came out less than two years after founding member and bass player Bobby Sheehan died in his New Orleans apartment. While it received critical acclaim, it didn't catch on with fans as much as the group's past records.

Wilson, Kinchla and the three remaining original members - John Popper, Chan Kinchla and Brendan Hill - are ready for another go-around. The band is hitting the road to try out the new material and, of course, play the past favorites.

On Friday, Blues Traveler makes a tour stop at the Fox Theatre in Foxwoods Resort Casino. The show begins at 9 p.m. and tickets are $22 and $38.50.

For different reasons, Wilson and Tad Kinchla faced difficult challenges in joining Blues Traveler. Although his brother Chan was a founding member of the band, Kinchla was still replacing Sheehan, a beloved member and friend.

Wilson took on the pressure of creating a new sound for the group since it never had a keyboard player.

"We moved away from the traditional Blues Traveler sound," the 34-year-old Wilson said. "I don't think we went too far away from it. We just added different elements.

"It's tough spots for us. It's definitely been harder for (Kinchla). He's a darn good player in his own right. He'd be the first guy to praise Bobby. I think they brought me in partly because they wanted to take some pressure off the new bass player. Also, Bobby always wanted a keyboard player, so it's sort of an honor being here."

Even with a new keyboard and bass players, Popper's lead vocals and harmonica playing are still the band's hallmark sounds. The 35-year-old Popper, who spent much of his childhood in Connecticut, met up with the other three original members to form Blues Traveler in 1988.

The band became known for its constant touring and it released its self-titled debut CD in 1990. In 1994, Blues Traveler released its fourth album, four. It included the hit "Run-Around," which gained the group widespread appeal and earned it a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.

"John Popper is one of the great musicians of our time," Wilson said. "It's beyond an incredible thrill working with him."

Less than two years ago, Wilson, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., responded to an online ad the band put out in Keyboard Magazine. He was the last of five keyboard players who auditioned.

"There was some stressful moments," Wilson said. "It was a new dynamic. You're a five-piece band instead of a four-piece. It took us awhile to find each other and hammer stuff out. It turned out to be a great experience for all of us."

Having that experience is one reason Wilson is looking forward to this current tour. With one CD under the new Blues Traveler's belt, some of the pressure Wilson and the band faced has been lifted.

"Last summer we hit our stride," Wilson said. "I think people will forget that Tad and I are the new guys. And that's cool... It's good to get in a situation where you can walk on stage and not have to struggle to win people over."