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As Blues Traveler keyboardist Ben Wilson sat waiting for a Tuesday night gig in Fargo, N.D., his thoughts turned toward two weeks into the future.
"We started touring the last week of June, and with the exception of about two days, we have been going at it pretty hard all summer," Wilson said during a telephone interview. "It has been a great tour and we are super psyched to keep playing, but at this point you are also looking at the horizon and saying, 'Oh yeah, baby, home.'"
The band's Saturday stop for a gig at the Green Space stage in Arnolds Park, Iowa, will be its 37th gig since the last week of June. Not that this is anything the five-piece blues/jam band isn't used to.
Since its inception in 1988 in Princeton, N.J., Blues Traveler has climbed out the dark depths of the New York City club scene to grab national fame, due largely in part to a relentless touring schedule. But the road, as any musician who has watched the mountains of Colorado and the growing grain of Nebraska pass by while looking out a tour bus window will tell you, takes its toll after a while.
Such was the case with Blues Traveler in the late '90s. Following two well-received albums, Save His Soul and the quintuple platinum four, and almost constant touring across the United States, frontman and skilled harmonica player John Popper's health began to fail and bassist Bobby Sheehan fell further into the world of narcotics.
In the fall of 1999 the band hit bottom. Popper, whose increasing weight forced him to play many gigs from a wheelchair [sic], was forced to undergo angioplasty and two weeks later Sheehan was found dead in of an overdose in his New Orleans home.
The future was uncertain for the road dogs that had captured millions of fans with tunes like "Run-Around" and "Hook." A retooling was necessary, and about four years ago, bassist Tad Kinchla and Wilson joined founding members drummer Brendan Hill, guitarist Chan Kinchla and Popper before the revamped band that averages about 200 gigs a year was once again road-ready.
"This tour we are trying to mix it up with older songs and newer songs," Wilson said. "It has been great playing now as we all become more confident and comfortable with Tad and I playing the songs from the first few albums and all of us together playing the songs from our most recent records."
The summer tour found the fellas playing a variety of venues. From the long-time band favorite stop at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colo., to a first-time stop in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., Wilson said the tour has been a "blast," even though some critics claimed the band wasn't quite what it used to be during the early tour gigs. Many of the critics, including fans themselves who posted Internet critiques, have since changed their tune.
"As I look back over the course of things and this tour, it has been a steady uphill progress of getting better. It has gotten better and better and I think it is showing in our playing and song writing and our tightness as a band," Wilson said.
And when Blues Traveler ends the current tour the first week of September, don't expect the musicians to take their newly-found cohesiveness right back on the road. Wilson said the members are going to focus on writing a new studio release, the follow-up to the 2003 album Truth Be Told.
"We usually do a fall tour but we have decided not to that. We might do some sporadic gigs, but we are going to hole up for three or three and a half weeks at a spot yet to be determined and start writing some songs," Wilson said.
The thought of the next studio album forces Wilson to ponder the future of the band. The never-ending battle for a band to consider writing radio-friendly tunes and ones for hard-core fans continues, even for these seasoned musicians.
"It's not that you're writing songs for the radio, but once you kind of get an idea of what it takes - this is more speaking to John than anyone else - I think it is hard to get away from trying to match that. There is also some talk of throwing it all to the wind and getting back to a total jam band kind of record. The proof is in the pudding and as we write the songs and as we get closer to having a producer and knowing what songs we are going to record, who knows where it could end up," Wilson said.
And so the Blues Traveler road goes.