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|Blues Traveler wouldn't have gotten anywhere without con jobs and bootleg
The blues-rock quintet - headlining the Miller Lite Great Lawn Stage on Friday, Aug. 30 - began as a quartet of pals from Princeton High School in Princeton, N.J. The uninspired students moved into a Brooklyn house together in 1987, ostensibly to go to various institutions of higher learning, but mainly to land Manhattan gigs.
They hit the clubs instead of the books, said drummer Brendan Hill, laughing.
Leader, vocalist and harmonica player John Popper carried a psychedelic lunch box containing numerous mouth organs down to the front row, Hill recalled. Inevitably, the musicians on the bill invited the showoff to sit in. After wailing a number or two, the teen would be asked if he had a band. Yes, Popper would say. They're right here. And his smiling mates would scramble from the darkness onto the stage for an "improvised" set.
"A scam it was," said Hill, relishing the ingenuity of Popper, who once dreamed of becoming a comedian. "We were doing what we loved. We were young and naive and put everything into it."
Blues Traveler experimented and polished through necessity, said Hill. The same audience, mostly the band's college friends, attended booking after booking. "We'd play a different show every time," Hill said. "We did new songs, new arrangements, four hours a night, 20 to 25 times a month. Our goal was to keep things interesting not only for the crowd but for us, too."
Blues Traveler encouraged fans to tape concerts since New York laws at the time prevented clubs from broadcasting on the radio. The son of legendary promoter Bill Graham heard a bootleg concert Blues Traveler had performed at Columbia University. The younger Graham, enrolled there, took it to the older Graham, who helped establish such fledgling groups as the Grateful Dead.
Within days the promoter sent the band a letter of interest. Within weeks Blues Traveler topped the marquee at storied New York spots like the Palladium.
"We went from playing a frat house gig with an inch of beer around us to a housing benefit in Washington D.C. for 500,000 people," Hill said.
The part-time scholars dropped out of school by spring 1989.
Their learned, upper-middle class parents couldn't object much, said the 32-year-old Hill.
Indeed, the band's self-titled debut CD included the hit single "But Anyway."
And records one through three sold a respectable 200,000 to 300,000 copies each.
The fourth CD, called four released in 1994, went platinum six times. The tune "Run-Around" earned Blues Traveler its first Grammy Award. Blues Traveler has appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman" more than a dozen times.
The live CD What You and I Have Been Through (Artist Direct) will come out in the fall.
None of this could have happened, Hill said, without some youthful flimflam and creative guile.