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Blues Traveler at Bele Chere
by Jedd Ferris
Asheville Citizen-Times, Asheville, NC
Jul 28th, 2005

Blues Traveler at Bele Chere By Jedd Ferris CITIZEN-TIMES CORRESPONDENT updated: July 28, 2005 9:44 am

In the past few years Blues Traveler appeared to be a band with an identity crisis. Were they still the fiery jam rockers that pioneered the traveling hippy H.O.R.D.E. festival that helped launch the careers of the Dave Matthews Band and Phish in the early 90s? Or were they the platinum-selling pop stars that emerged in the latter part of the decade, taking home a Grammy for the Billboard hit "Run-Around"?

After much adversity and evolution, the band has decided that it is still quite adept at being both, and it is out to prove it with a new CD this September.

Fronted by charismatic harmonica-wielding ace John Popper along with founding members Chan Kinchla (guitar) and Brendan Hill (drums) and later additions Tad Kinchla (bass), and Ben Wilson (keyboards), the group recently finished recording in Austin, Texas, with the help of producer Jay Bennett, a former member of Wilco.

Being just the third release of the current line-up (the first two, 2001's Bridge and 2003's Truth Be Told, received lackluster reception), the band insists it has finally found the chemistry of its peak days.

"It feels more lively, like a Blues Traveler live show," says Wilson. "We went for more of a '70s thing and got a bunch of Steely Dan kind of stuff with some spacey elements. It feels like more of what this band is about, as opposed to trying to get songs on the radio. We took on the attitude to do something for us that we dig that will make each other happy.

"Jay came on board and helped us set that table. He liked to think of himself as a sixth member. He ended up being the swing vote, but others producers have just told us what to do, and he was really good at just fostering creativity."

Blues Traveler has been navigating through phases of its experimental blues-rock for more than 20 years. The band formed in Princeton, N.J., in 1983 with high school friends Popper, Hill, Chan Kinchla and original bassist Bobby Sheehan moving to New York City to test the underground scene. After logging time in dive bars and famous granola haunts like the now-defunct Wetlands Preserve in lower Manhattan, the group earned itself a small following.

The early 1990s saw the band, along with contemporaries like Phish and Widespread Panic, fuel a scene of new-generation jam bands, the first of its kind to follow in the footsteps of the Grateful Dead. These bands toured across the country on Blues Traveler's H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) tour, which eventually grew into large amphitheater showcases with the likes of Neil Young, the Allman Brothers Band, Sheryl Crow and the Black Crowes before ending in 1998.

In 1994, though, the band had a kink of mainstream success thrown into its grassroots caravan with the release of Four, which hailed a Grammy Award-winning single and is now certified six-times platinum. At the height of its wild ride, Blues Traveler headlined Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve.

Then in 1999, while the band was enjoying some time off the road, tragedy struck, as Sheehan died of a drug overdose. With an uncertain future the members regrouped the following year and decided to continue, employing Chan's brother Tad and Wilson to fill the void of Sheehan's patented rolling thick bass lines.

"It always takes a while for a band to find its legs," says Wilson of the immediate transition. "It was tough in the sense that I didn't want to mess it up. I was concerned with how I was going to take my playing and fit it in. I spent a good couple of years just trying to fill in some space."

Now the band hopes to prove legitimate chemistry has developed and it can work as five individual voices. In doing so it is ready to forge a new chapter, incorporating both sides of Blues Traveler's past—Popper's catchy, melodic hook-laden songs and an increasing amount of improvisational forays. The band is on the road now showcasing its newly defined sound and will perform at the Bele Chere Premiere Event on the Delta Airlines Celebration Stage in the parking lot of the Renaissance Hotel downtown.

"The five of us have our plot staked out in what we do well and bring to the band," says Wilson. "We definitely don't think of ourselves as a pop band, but once you've tasted radio it's difficult not to want to cater to that possibility. John just writes songs with hook melodies, but maybe we can keep that and not run away from it any more than our instrumental prowess. If a hit comes out, great, but if you spend too much time thinking about that you can lose yourself.

"That's what the title of this new record is all about. It means doing what we want to do. We're being bastards. It's a reaction to years of trying to figure out what we are and worrying about what we are as opposed to just doing what we do."

Jedd Ferris writes about music for the Citizen-Times. E-mail him at jeddferris@gmail.com.