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Blues Traveler arrives at place of harmony
Daily Camera, Boulder, CO
Jun 28th, 2003

Blues Traveler singer John Popper hasn't done many interviews lately.

Part of it is because he thinks he makes himself look bad: "I always come off lousy in print. I have a sarcastic sense of humor and people never catch it. I'm very grateful the band has allowed me this honor to speak in print again," he says.

But it's also been a time of turmoil in the band, with the 1999 death of bassist Bobby Sheehan and Popper's own determination to get his weight under control and live a healthier lifestyle.

Nearly four years down the road, Popper is healthier than ever (except for the cigarettes); Sheehan's replacement, Tad Kinchla (younger brother of guitarist Chan Kinchla), has fit comfortably into the band; and new keyboard player Ben Wilson has found his own voice as well.

The result is Truth Be Told, perhaps Blues Traveler's finest set of songs, due out in August. Fans won't have to wait that long; some of the songs will pop up in the band's traditional July 4th holiday visits to Red Rocks on Thursday and Friday.

Its first album with the new lineup, 2001's Bridge, was aptly named, Popper now notes: "Some reviewer nailed it when he said, 'We'll see how they do on the next album.' "

That next album is finished, and it reveals more fire in the belly than bands half their age have.

"I liken (producer) Don Gehman to Phil Jackson and what he did for the Chicago Bulls - he allowed everyone to do what they were good at," Popper says. The 21 days of recording time for Truth Be Told was among the most productive ever for the band, in part because Gehman figured out how to have them work together efficiently.

"Some of the guys in the band love to really work on the parts thoroughly. That drives me crazy. My first take is always my best," Popper says. Bassist Tad Kinchla, on the other hand, works out his lines for hours.

"So he allowed Tad to work for eight hours and I'd come in for the last 20 minutes. It's a simple solution, makes both of us happy," Popper says.

The biggest difference, he says, is that the band is feeling relaxed and confident in its musical abilities, a self-assurance that shines through on cuts such as "Let Her & Let Go" and "Can't See Why".

"When we made records in the past, there was always some stress, internal or otherwise. A lot of it came from me - I was really desperate to show everyone what I could do," Popper says.

"We started to look at music the way talented adults do rather than the way talented kids do. Enough of the country knows who Blues Traveler is that we don't have to prove who we are. We get to be ourselves. It's a lot of pressure off of us."

That led to changes in their work habits. "I used to succumb to this old mythology that if a song came to you at 6 a.m., you had to get out of bed and write it," he says. "Now when that inspiring light hits me in the eye at 6 a.m., I roll over and go to sleep. The dream song that will cure cancer is not out there."

To facilitate band harmony, "we've made (Wilson and Tad Kinchla) full partners in the band, which means they get to own a piece of this potential growth industry or flagging business," Popper says. "They have a full stake in it. It would only work if they were actual members."

For every performance on this and the other Blues Traveler discs, Popper has a singer in mind as he's singing - even if the result sounds nothing like that person. "Mount Normal" on the new disc "is my lesbian tune," he says. "It was my attempt to approach things the way Ani DiFranco does. I found that I have a lot less anger than her."

As for the second chorus of "Thinnest of Air", "I call that my Gwen Stefani imitation," he says. "I don't think anyone listening to it would get that, though."

Likewise, the band's big 1995 hit, "Run-Around", was sung with Counting Crows' Adam Duritz's style on the hit "Mr. Jones" in mind.

"I felt like I was ripping him off on that one, but I don't think people really make that connection," he says. "At the same time, though, I'll hear Sister Hazel and say, 'God, that guy was thinking of me when he did that.' "

"Everybody's songs can be melded into everyone else's. I love that tradition of not trying to rip each other off but still musically hear each other. I'll rip off a Flintstones Chewable Vitamins ad if it's got a good melody."

Colorado has always been good to the band, thus the July 4th concerts. "Colorado was the first place in the country where we could sell tickets. It became for us a rallying cry of making a living the way we wanted to. We looked at it as territory we had won through conquest."

Stints at Herman's Hideaway and the Fox Theatre eventually swelled into co-bills at Red Rocks every July 4th.

As one of the pioneering bands of the jam-band movement, it's had no problem finding other musicians to play with them on those gigs.

"Every time I come into contact with a younger jam band, I feel like this overly appreciated elder statesman," Popper says. "If you last a long time, you can't help but influence people. We were just ahead of the curve. I don't feel like we had anything to do with (the success of) the String Cheese Incident, but I enjoy the camaraderie."

And he enjoys moving forward, determined not to fall into old habits. He has since tattooed on his chest "I want to be brave" - backward, so he can read it in the mirror every morning.

"As long as I make that the focus, life will work out well, or at least as it should," he says. "If you don't meet the confrontations that life gives you, you're going to be screwed anyway."